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.


Jessica said...

Hi there, I live in Newcastle and have a Kaffir lime tree. I saw that you brought one back to life. Mine started dying after we moved suburbs. It's potted, and all its leaves fell off and now the ends of each branch have turned brown. I read some things on the internet which prompted me to replant it today in another pot with dry soil. As I was pulling it out of the pot to replant I saw just how muddy the bottom of the pot was. I thought it had good drainage.
Is this all I should do, and wait and see. I bought fertilizer but I'm afraid to use it. And usually when I replant I water but I'm afraid the roots have had too much water, especially with all the rain last weekend. Any more advice?? Thanks for the help!!

Jamie said...

Hi Jessica
You'll need to use potting mix, not garden soil, for your potted citrus. I use Debco 'Terracotta & Tub', which is a bit expensive but it's well worth it. You'll need a good-size pot, about 50cm wide at the top, if possible. And as for the brown bits, cut them off until you see some green bits left on branches or twigs. It'll grow back.
Secondly, get rid of any dishes underneath the pot and replace them with pot feet. Water must drain away from the bottom of the pot. Water clogging up the bottom of the pot is bad for citrus.
As for fertiliser for potted plants, the ideal is to feed plants about every six weeks. You could use a slow-release food like Osmocote for pots, but you could also just scatter around a handful of Dynamic Lifter (chicken poo) every six weeks, too.
Don't worry about too little water for potted citrus in summer. At the moment, give the plants a water every second day, unless it rains. Then, when autumn comes, every third day. Then, when winter comes, at least once a week.
The main things with potted citrus are pot feet, potting mix, and feeds every six weeks.
If you have any other questions, Jessica, email me at: and I'll try to help.
Good luck!

greengardener said...

Your babysitting duties have obviously been beneficial for some of your ‘charges’ – the Kaffir Lime, and its personal associated circumstances, must have been particularly satisfying for you.