Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rain's special effects

It wasn't until I lived in a house with a tin roof that I realised what I had been missing all those years – the gentle hiss of rain. I had grown up in a house with a tiled roof, and that thick layer of terracotta roofing might have had its advantages, but it prevented me listening to all but the heaviest rain. Now I have a bit of both worlds: a tiled roof over our bedrooms and living rooms, and a tin roof over the back part of the house, where the kitchen and bathroom is. And so this morning I was up early, in the kitchen as usual, reading, and I heard the first raindrops. As soon as the light was good, I headed outdoors.

Easily the prettiest raindrop-holders here would have to be the Brussels sprouts. Every raindrop holds its place on those stiff, veined leaves. None of the raindrops is a perfect sphere, each does its own take on the saggy side of sogginess.

New growth on roses comes second! This is a standard Friesia rose I'm minding for a friend, Evan. I read somewhere that there's a reason for new growth being red. The chemical that makes it red is similar to a sunscreen, and helps to protect the baby leaves from sunburn in its first few weeks of life.

Finally, this little pot of mini Cos lettuce is underway in the improving warmth and rain. They had been doing very little for the last two weeks, not any more, and they'll quickly fill the pot.

It's easy to see how broccoli is related to Brussels Sprouts. They both hold water in giant blobs that shimmer slightly in the breeze. While I was taking photos this morning, these same blobs just stayed put for the half-hour or so I was outside.

Even the plants that supposedly don't need much water look like they're lapping it up. This pot of succulent aeoniums likes a drink more than some other succulents.

As usual I'm not certain whether these are graptoverias or something else in the succulent kingdom, but they turn water into another substance that looks more like a synthetic jelly than simple H20.

Of course the ferns thrive on water. Considering how dry Sydney has been, I am amazed that any of my ferns have survived, but then again ferns have survived several hundred million years, through ice ages and everything else that nature can throw at them, so a mere Australian drought is probably a 'been there, done that a thousand times' kind of thing for a fern.

Now, this is not a paid commercial by any means, but I couldn't possibly post about a rainy day without including something about fertiliser. A wet day is the perfect day for fertilising gardens. All the magazines and books say to water gardens before and after fertilising, so if you wander about in the rain scattering the chicken poo (which is largely what Dynamic Lifter is) the rain does the rest. This is what I mostly use on my garden. It smells glorious for a day or two, it's gentle and a well-balanced plant and soil food. Cow manure and home-made compost make their contribution, but this best-selling manure is just so convenient to buy and apply. Other brands of chicken manure are out there, and they're just as good. I just use this stuff because it's so readily available.

Although Dynamic Lifter is acceptable even for Australian native plants, you have to be careful how much you use. Australian natives are incredibly sensitive to phosphorus, and most ordinary garden fertilisers will kill them very quickly. So you have to use special plant foods formulated for natives, if you use anything at all. As my native garden is actually my front garden, where a lot of people walk by each day, I defer to sensitive noses and, instead of smelly Dynamic Lifter, I use a slow-release fertiliser, which has no odour. All I have to do is spread one little pack like this around all the natives in early spring, and that's it for the year. The natives thrive so much that the only job is cutting them back, to keep them dense and to stop them mugging passers-by.

I keep track of how much rain my garden gets with a simple rain gauge. I'm often surprised by how little, or how much, rain falls some days, and the gauge has proved useful a hundred times over. It definitely saves on over-watering. And yes, I do have other gardening friends around the city with gauges, and sometimes I get emails from them saying something like: "25mm last night" and that's it. I might reply "18mm here" and no more needs to be said. All the faithful record-keeping brings out the 19th-century scientist in this Garden Amateur!

And so that's my lovely rainy Sunday morning in Sydney. I always used to love playing outside in the rain when I was a kid, and nothing much has changed since then, or is likely to, either. There are so many good reasons to be outside in the garden on a wet day!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Small is beautiful

Herbs are one of the best things you can grow in your garden if you like cooking. I have all the classics growing here: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, coriander (or cilantro), oregano and, despite my best efforts to get rid of it, weedy lemon balm. Whereas vegies can be quite hard work to get all the way to the cooking pot, herbs are a breeze.

Over the years I've also come to appreciate herbs for more than just their wonderful flavours. Their flowers can be exquisite, if you're prepared to get up close and personal. So, when herbs decide it's time to flower, it really is time to get your knees dirty and take a closer look. At first glance lots of people could be forgiven for thinking of their tiny flowers as 'insignificant', but that would be a lost opportunity.

Right now it's mid August and the weather has been typically cold and a bit windy. It'd be nice if it rained a bit more, but I got my wish today: cold and wet. And the sage is in bloom. A lovely blue colour, too. This is such a hardy plant. I usually cut it back hard in late winter, after flowering finishes, and as soon as the weather warms it rockets away, producing far more leaves than I could ever use. It needs zero fertiliser, but a fair bit of winter rain, and no added water in summer. It has a strong flavour, so the main trick is not to use too much. A favourite sage dish is saltimbocca: thin escalopes of veal, each topped with a thin slice of prosciutto ham, and then with two sage leaves per escalope pinned in place with a toothpick. Cooking time in a lightly oiled frypan is about 1 minute either side.

And here's a flower head I always hate to see! Rats, the flat-leaf parsley is going to seed again. Time to pull them out and sow more seed. I have tried to let a few plants self-seed, but the results have been patchy, so a packet of seeds sown by me in late winter is my much more reliable annual ritual. The seed is very slow to germinate, about 3 weeks is normal, but seed-sown plants grow more strongly than seedling-sown plants. The transplanted seedlings suffer badly from transplant shock, and wilt easily in warm weather when young.

This is a much prettier and happier sight – chive flowers. Looks like a small blue firework held in suspended animation. I grow my chives in pots, and always have a couple of pots going. I find that chives bounce back well from the odd crew-cut down to pot-rim level, so if one pot is getting a bit long and tangled, it's haircut time. While I used chives in all sorts of dishes, nothing beats freshly snipped chives stirred into breakfast scrambled eggs.

Oregano has proven to be a pleasant surprise when in flower. This is such a hardy groundcover, and it can handle a bit of semi-shade too without complaining. To tell the truth, I now mostly cook with dried wild rigini that I buy from local Greek delis, but this plant has been with me for so many years that it's here to stay.

Mint flowers are remarkably delicate and complex things, one of the prettiest of the herb flowers. These plants, however, are best treated like caged beasts, so I confine them to pots and regularly cut them back, just to show them who's boss. The leaves make nice tea (and I've discovered the trick with mint tea is to use green teabags as well as the mint, gives the tea better 'body'). And if you've run out of coriander and are cooking Asian dishes, mint isn't a bad coriander substitute, and it's rare to have no mint on hand.

Ahh, my transplanted success story of the last spring and summer. I think I've posted about this before, but this is such an oily, fragrant rosemary and it's grown from cuttings simply stuck in the ground where I wanted the new plant to grow. And the blue flowers, which appear in winter, are a light, cool blue.

Flowers on basil are hardly a welcome sign, as that means it's time to pull up the plants and sow another crop. I find that sowing two or three crops of basil over summer gives the freshest flavour. Turning basil leaves into pesto works well not only with pasta: it's great in potato salads and served a side dollop with chicken breast or thigh fillets. And pesto freezes really well, so I divide it into small, serving-size plastic containers and use it regularly.

Probably my favorite herb in the garden is common thyme. I've tried all the other thymes, such as lemon thyme, and nothing compares to the common stuff for versatile flavour. Its flowers are probably the smallest and most beautiful of them all, tiny, delicate and complex pink constructions. One thing I've found with picking the herb is to pick older, tougher stalks. These are the easiest to strip the leaves from with your fingers, simply by running your pinched fingers down the length of the stalk. The light green young stalks, as pictured here, are far too soft and tender, and they always break when you try that method. Thyme makes its way into many dishes, but I love it especially to flavour chicken stock in which I then cook a vegetable stew with plenty of potatoes, carrots, eschallots and broad beans.

And so that's a quick lap of the flowering herb garden. All of these plants, except the mint, love lots of sunshine. The basil, parsley, chives and mint love their occasional liquid feeds, but the rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme never get fed or watered by me, and they thrive on neglect. The only other useful hint is to regularly use your herbs. This constant trimming and pruning seems to keep them vigorous and dense.

They need little care, compared with vegetables, but when they decide it's time to flower take the time to have a close look – you might be surprised how pretty they can be.

I see small people

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.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

First borns

'Imprinting' is the word bird-keepers use for it – you know, that bond for life that one living thing has for another, no matter how irrational it can sometimes seem. Usually the 'imprint-ee' is the hatching baby, and the 'imprint-er' is the person on the spot. But what do you know, with plants it works in reverse. See your first strawberry develop, notice the first broad bean finally make an appearance, and you remember it well. Hardened strawberry and broad bean farmers might not feel the same anymore, having produced millions of identical babies to be shipped off to the markets, but for this amateur gardener there's a genuine thrill each and every season when the first borns start arriving. Especially the winter babies, who have to do it tough.

Don't ask me why one strawberry streaked ahead of its siblings and turned into bright red bird food like this. I do rotate the pot weekly, so the ones on the other side had the same chance as this guy. But become a beacon it did. The verdict from my taste tester? Yes, definitely a strawberry but nothing exceptional. Just another strawberry in fact. Not even the pleasure of knowing that she got to eat it before the birds did worked any magic. To her, it's an unexceptional child, just one kid in a basketfull of little red children.

Pretty flowers just like this one was all that my broad bean trellis has been producing for the last few months. Very nice, especially close up, but eventually they changed from being pretty to frustrating. Enough with the flowers, guys!

And then, after four cold, wet wintry days with hardly a glimmer of real sunshine, suddenly all the flowers turned into broad bean babies. In fact, so many, that there really wasn't a 'first born' as such. More like a 'first batch'. Having not ventured down into broad bean land for a few days, I'm not sure when they started appearing. It was a case of Sunday no beans, Monday to Thursday rainy gloom keeping even keen gardeners inside, then Friday, broad bean-erama.

Now, this of course is not my first tomato baby, but it is my first midwinter tomato baby. Raised from seed sown in a hanging basket in May, this is 'Garten Perle' a vigorous grower if ever there was one. It's in a sheltered spot on the very edge of a north-facing covered pergola, so it gets lots of winter sun, and not much of the nasty, sold southerlies or south-westerly winds, and a fair bit of attention from me.

These parsnips are of course expected to look like this right now, but I've never grown them before and so they qualify for the 'first born' gallery. Handsome, broad leaves and steady progress all-round. The only problem was the seed packet. It said "sow seed fairly thickly due to (I forget the word, but something like 'haphazard') germination". So, with a germination rate in the high 90% range, I ended up with seedlings everywhere. Thinning done, they're powering along.

And this, too is an unexceptional sight. Rosemary flowers. But for me it marks the completion of a transplanting job on a favourite plant. For some reason this plant is a super-fragrant, super-oily rosemary. Just walking past it sends up clouds of lovely rosemary scent. But it was in the wrong spot in the garden, and I really did have to move it. However, I did the move slowly, very slowly – took about a year. Rosemary strikes very easily here in Sydney, so I just cut off a dozen stems and stuck them in the ground in the 'new' spot. None of this fancy 'taking cuttings' operation beforehand. Just stuck them in the ground. Of the dozen stems planted about 10 thrived, and I've left two to grow on into handsome bushes, with these pleasing results. The old parent plant has been removed, finally, and its progeny, the first generation, if not the first born, carries on the family tradition and continues to be the most fragrant rosemary I've ever encountered.

I am still waiting, quite impatiently, for the potatoes to do something interesting. And when I say 'impatient' that means I actually exhumed one of them the other day to see what was happening and indeed there is progress aplenty, but no shoots above-ground yet.

I really ought to be more patient, as it is midwinter after all. I really am trying to let nature take its course but it's hard not to play God here and there. I'm hardly practising the loving disinterest of a Christian God who never gets involved or interferes directly in earthly affairs. Rather, I tend to feel like, when it comes to my earthly garden, I'm a bit more like a badly behaved chorus of Ancient Greek or Roman style Gods – interfering with this person here, smiting that pest there, getting involved wherever I please, occasionally wreaking havoc, and sometimes doing some good. Not bad fun at all, really.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Sharing the space

In our outdoor dining area, there's one seat that we call 'rat patrol'. That's the best spot from which to observe the neighbourhood rat dashing about the garden. We always make sure first-timer guests don't get the 'rat patrol' seat. But before we learned this lesson, it was funny to see the looks on people's faces – usually they just freeze stiff – when they saw the rat. There's a local supermarket nearby, plus several restaurants, so we think the rats come from there. We've never had them in the house, just the garden. Fortunately there's plenty of other wildlife dropping by, and I thought I'd post about some of them here.

This gal is here all the time. The photo was taken today. This is a native honeyeater, a little wattlebird. Another, much bigger, wattlebird, the red wattlebird, also visits often, and they're all here for the nectar of this Grevillea 'Superb', which is in flower all-year-round. It's a remarkable shrub, and an important food source for the wattlebirds. (They get their name 'wattle', by the way, from a floppy piece of flesh, called a wattle, which hangs from their cheek, not from the wattle tree itself.)

Good defensive tactics here from the St Andrews Cross spider. Weave some bold zigzag patterns to visually extend your legs and make yourself look bigger. Must work, because it remains relatively out in the open most of the time.

Praying mantises are never in short supply. As I don't use pesticides they are free to roam where they please, so too the bees who have been madly pollinating my broad bean crops for me this week.

I'm not exactly sure who this is, other than to guess that it's a jewel beetle. Apparently the Sydney area has hundreds of species of jewel beetles, so it's a reasonable guess.

Speaking of bees (earlier on) I recently got a few more than I had bargained for. This swarm suddenly appeared one afternoon on an Ivory Curl street tree (Buckinghamia celsissima) and that was definitely the event of the day for our street. They stayed overnight, and then, around 10 the next morning, took off as a swarm (which sounded remarkably like a low flying aircraft), bearing 120°, altitude 40 feet, speed 10 knots. Never seen them again since. Hope they found a new home, but glad it wasn't in my backyard.

And as I'm not really sure whether that's a jewel beetle in the photo above, I haven't got the foggiest idea who these little people are, but close up they definitely look like mini ladybirds. Every one of my flannel flowers had its own retinue of several of these little people, presumably feeding on the pollen. As flannel flowers are natives I presume these 'ladybirds' are too.

That's it for photos, but there's a fascinating gaggle of other creatures sharing my backyard. Lizards range in size from the ubiquitous tiny skinks up to handsome bluetongue lizards which have visited but are a rarity.

Spiders aplenty in summer, lots of orb-weavers and St Andrews cross in particular. Fortunately no poisonous funnel webs and I've only seen one poisonous red-back in the 17 years I've been here.

Birds aplenty visit, as we have two birdbaths which are cleaned every day. We do get some of the usual inner-city feral birds (eg, sparrows, mynahs, starlings, blackbirds, pigeons, doves) but fortunately not many.

We get far more of natives visiting for some reason: little wattlebirds, red wattlebirds, rainbow lorikeets, blue wrens, willy wagtails, magpies, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, New Holland honeyeaters, cockatoos and, occasionally, the beautiful little spotted pardalote, which was a total surprise (and delight) when it first appeared. I think a photo of a spotted pardalote in my backyard is up there in holy grail territory! One of these days, lord....

Of all the things which attract birds, it's the clean fresh water in the birdbaths. We provide such a reliable supply of it, especially when it's really needed over summer, that I think all the local birds think of our place as the local pub, cafe and wash house.