Monday, July 28, 2008

Got the blues, but I don't mind

A lack of flowering plants is always going to be part of winter. Our local native birds are glad of the pink-flowering Eucalyptus leucoxylon var. rosea street tree at the front of our house, and the red-flowering Grevillea 'Superb' in the backyard, both of which flower through winter. These two plants are almost constantly occupied right now by nectar-eaters such as wattle birds, New Holland honeyeaters and rainbow lorikeets. But as for flowers, that's about it right now. So I was organising my iPhoto files yesterday and realised that last spring and summer was quite a lovely little blue period for the garden. So, as a way of banishing the midwinter blues, here's a simple post of my garden during its blue period last year.

Without a doubt the prettiest weed in my garden, these self-seeding 'Johnny Jump Ups' poke up here, there and everywhere from late winter through to late spring. From one punnet sown in innocence at least 10 years ago, these plants have become an established, and only occasionally annoying, flowering weed. I always pull up the majority of them as they appear in unwanted spots, but I always let several grow and flower, too.

A great little annual for spots that get only some sun during the day, torenias put on a good show and are very easy to look after and last several weeks.

One good accidental combo was when a vigorous, groundcovering pelargonium made it all the way to the torenia patch.

In Australia and I presume in other countries, when you say the word 'geranium' most people think of pelargoniums, but here's what they call a 'real' geranium. I bought several geraniums at a gardening show a couple of years ago, and this is the sole survivor. Hot, dry Sydney midsummer days killed off the others. This one doesn't flower for very long, but it's extremely pretty when it does so in spring.

If the geraniums are pretty but don't flower for long, this blue salvia is equally pretty and flowers for ages through summer. Months and months. It starts blooming before Christmas and is still in bloom in April.

I went mad and bought two punnets of seedlings and a packet of seed, planted them all and watched the results. The seedlings were a stouter, shorter plant and the flowers deeper blue; the seed-grown plants were generally a bit disappointing and variable, but they did grow and flower fairly well, but didn't look as good. However, I did get my 'field of blue' look, and it worked nicely.

Blue is always classed as a 'cool' colour, and in the heat of summer I think it does have something of a cooling effect. Although I do love yellows and oranges, too, and these are hot colours, and these balance out the blues.

I guess one of these days I should also balance out a blue-flowered posting with something on the yellows and oranges that I always go for.

I read somewhere a while ago that the best selling decorating colours in Australia, year-in, year-out, almost no matter what the fashionable colours might be that year, are blue and yellow. Maybe that's because of the ever-present natural colours of sun and sky, or sand and surf. Who knows? But it works for me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Purely by coincidence, I've suddenly become a babysitter for a few plants. In one case it's more of a 'nursing back to health' kind of plant babysitting job, but for the other two temporary residents it's simply a matter of looking after two perfectly healthy plants for a whole year, while friends are away on an interesting journey into the very hot, dry and dusty Australian outback.

Pictured above is the Thai lime leaf tree that's being nursed back to good health. I'm hoping the person for whom I'm nursing it also bounces back to good health at the same time. My sister-in-law is slugging it out with breast cancer. She's up to the twelfth round and she's still fighting hard, and her corner is crowded with supporters. Unfortunately her illness has meant that her potted garden hasn't been getting its usual good care lately, and recently she had to move house, and the little potted lime tree ended up in a cold, dark shady corner and promptly dropped all its leaves. It was reduced to bare sticks, so it's now getting some much-needed R&R in a sunny spot in my backyard. A drink of liquid Seasol (not a fertiliser, but a soil conditioner and root-growth promoter based on seaweed), some mulch and lots of sunshine seems to be working. Pictured above are some of the first babies, pictured shining in the early morning sun.

The leaves of this thorny little tree (also called the Makrut lime or Kaffir lime, but Citrus hystrix to the botanists) look like double leaves, joined at the waist. The fruits themselves are knobbly and not very juicy, but the grated zest has a dazzling tang, and the leaves are one of the essential ingredients of Thai cuisine. A Thai beef salad just doesn't taste authentic without super-finely shredded Thai lime leaves as part of the mix. Hopefully I'll soon be able to make a nice, spicy Thai beef salad for my sister-in-law, using leaves from her rejuvenated tree.

This may look like an ordinary rose bud, but it's actually an awesome responsibility in a pot. It's the middle of winter and roses should be snoozing now. But not this standard 'Friesia' yellow rose. It just keeps on sending up big, beautiful, fragrant yellow flowers. Admittedly, it has slowed down the flower production a bit lately, but only a bit. The leaves remain glossy and green and the plant is in fabulous good health. I've been babysitting this plant since early May, when my good friends Evan and Michelle headed out of Sydney, for a year of living in the baking hot centre of Australia, in the tiny but, for Australians, culturally important town of Birdsville, in far western Queensland.

The other plant I am babysitting belongs to Michelle. It's this cumquat, pictured here. You can read all about what Evan and Michelle are up to in Michelle's Birdsville blog, which is linked to at the bottom of this page. Michelle and Evan are also taking on the heroic task of trying to grow fresh vegies out there. It's sandy, dry and gets ludicrously hot in summer. So far so good in their vegie patch over the winter, though. Potted plants like roses and cumquats wouldn't stand a chance of surviving in Birdsville's heat, so they're staying here in Sydney with me. Michelle's cumquat is every bit as healthy as Evan's rose, so I have a simple task ahead, hopefully. I also have a potted cumquat tree, so whatever I do to my cumquat (food, water, spray, mulch), Michelle's cumquat gets it too. They don't need much care, fortunately. Water's the main thing, plus mulch. I use slow-release fertilisers for most of my potted plants, but maybe a bit of Dynamic Lifter (chicken manure) in spring for good measure. And the only spray is an organic oil called PestOil, which keeps the scales,leaf miners and aphids miserable, hopefully.

I had a cumquat harvest a week or two back, and had enough fruit to make four jars of marmalade. Hopefully the first of Michelle's two jars will arrive in good nick at Birdsville, courtesy of Australia Post and the cushioning comfort of bubble-wrap. This is my second year of marmalade making, and I think it's going to become an annual tradition. Those little potted trees certainly produce a good amount of fruit. It's a bit of a worry seeing how much sugar is needed to make the stuff, but I only have it on toast about once a week, so that's not too bad for moderation!

And so that's the babysitting report. Oddly enough, it's much more fun babysitting a sick plant and seeing it recover. The best you can do with an already-healthy plant is not stuff things up, and the plants Evan and Michelle handed over have certainly come from a good gardening home.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Potato planting day – at last!

Having my first go at growing potatoes – ie, spuds – and today is the big day. Spud Planting Day.

Been a bit of a wait, really. The enthusiasm all began last May when I decided 2008 was to be the Year of the Spud. Shopped online, ordered what turned out to be far too many spuds. Then nothing happened. The mail-order companies weren't ready to send out spuds, so they only arrived in the mail in late June and early July. And then I read from the very detailed instructions that you need to 'chit the spuds' - wait until they produce sprouts before planting them. And as it turned out, the spuds which arrived first in the mail, the Kennebecs, still haven't sprouted. However, the Dutch Creams and the King Edwards have only taken about 10 days to sprout, so they're the ones I'm planting today.

The helpful little fact sheets with the spuds said to use egg cartons to chit the potatoes. Didn't have any egg cartons, but I did have some leftover toner cartridge cartons, and they're just as good.

I'm probably jumping the gun a bit, but as far as I am concerned these are sprouted spuds (King Edwards). Maybe they could grow on for a few more days, but it's Sunday morning, I have a big week ahead of me at work, so they're going in this morning!

Here's the home, all ready for them so go in. It has been prepared for them for a few weeks now (hot to trot, spud-wise, this blogger). Trenches dug, soil piled up in between. Complete fertiliser along the bottom of each trench, covered with a few inches of soil.

And in they go, about 30cm apart, with the sprouted bits facing upwards. Dutch Creams left, King Edwards right.

Hardly an inspiring finale, but a few inches of soil on top, a bit of water to settle it all down, and now the wait until something pokes through in the next week or two. I suspect the main challenge will be stopping stray cats using the trenches as a toilet, or
at least cleaning up after them if they do.

Well, that's that. Everyone warns about planting spuds in midwinter because of the risk of frost, but Sydney's winters are so mild that where I am, less than 10km from the coast as the crow flies, there's almost no danger of frosts here. Can't remember ever having one. The last few days have seen temperatures up near 20°C (that's Huey laying on some lovely weather for all the pilgrims here for World Youth Day), but the minimums stay around 7-10°C, which is mild for midwinter, so I'll just operate as if we'll have a normal year, weather-wise, which is all you can do.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fields of poppies, sort of

Well, it seemed like a good plan at the time: a field of poppies nodding their heads in the winter sun. It has sort-of worked, but not quite as planned. However, like most gardening projects it has been fun (and cheap!). One packet of poppy seed ($2) plus, at the last minute, one punnet of poppy seedlings ($3) to fill in some gaps.

Sowing the seed and raising seedlings was the best bit. Interestingly, the seed-grown plants are restricted to yellow, cream and orange colours. The punnet plants are where the reds come from. The labels on all just said 'Iceland poppies'. The seedling plants have thicker, more robust stems, too. But the seed-grown plants were much smaller than the seedlings when they all went in the ground, but the littlies then grew faster and flowered first.

Pictured here is the 'field' this morning, July 12. All the seed-grown poppies have spindly stems, and the seedling ones are thick and stout. For both types, the main trick seems to be to pinch out any developing flower stems while plants are small. Let the plants put all their energy into growing as plants. Then, when they get up to a good size, let them go.

Well, that's what I did and there are dozens that have come up already, many are in the house in vases, and it looks like there are several weeks' worth to come. The only bummer has been some strong winds which have belted the skinny stems into submission. But, like punch-drunk boxers they just get up off the floor and fight on. It's hard to beat an open poppy for a classic, pretty, simple flower, isn't it?

The other thing I like about poppies is the unopened flower heads. They always remind me of punk rockers about three weeks after they've shaved their heads. There's some stubbly growth there on their semi-bald heads. Looks like a flower bud with attitude.

Well, that's the poppy story this year. They'll flower on well into August, and by the time spring in September rolls around, I think I might be in the mood for a field of low-growing daisies stretching two or three metres into the distance. From our back door we look out to the north-east, so in the early morning the rising sun always catches that bed in the low light. It's the perfect place for some flowering colour, and this year's poppies have certainly set a nice standard for all the other flowers that follow to live up to.