Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Patchy potagers

Creating a potager garden (ie, a cutesy mix of flowers and food plants) is rather like conducting an orchestra – only in my case it has turned out to be a rather wilful, maverick orchestra of flowers and vegies. "Not yet, woodwinds" I can hear myself bellowing as they chime in several bars earlier than they should. "And timpani, what do you think you're doing – you're mean to wait until the violins have finished – what page are you on?" All my fault, really, trying to become an orchestral plant conductor when my gardening skills are the equivalent of not yet being able to read music. All that being said, here's the story of my little potager patch so far.

Traaa daaaaa! This morning, December 31 (Happy New Year, Blogosphere!). Click on the photo to see it in more detail. Conical lettuce? Well, they do actually look quite interesting when they go to seed. And when you see their little flowers you discover that they really are members of the daisy family. But the idea was that the lettuce would be low and lush green companions to the baby marigolds. Hasn't quite turned out that way, but it's kind of pretty. But let's go back to the beginning, late October, and the potager patch was just a clapped out poppy patch ready for the garden cleaners to come in...

Late October – some lettuce and other salad greens in the foreground, with messy, rangey potato plants poking their head in on the right hand side, and a poor little curly parsley border struggling for land rights down the front. The poppies are exhausted, but having flowered well since June they've covered themselves in glory and will be back for a repeat performance next year.

After a thorough cleaning out, all that remained was the parsley border and a couple of baby silver beets. A potager seemed like a good, short-term plan for this spot, as it will have to make way for the poppies some time in late autumn.

Before I started planting, I checked the soil pH and it was around 5.5, which is fairly acid, but nothing unusual for here. However, another dose of dolomite lime was applied, dug in and watered in, to gently raise it towards 6. Hopefully in another year or two it will eventually settle down around 6.5, which is about ideal for my needs.

Next, a layer of sugar cane mulch about one and a half inches thick (ie, 40mm). I used to mulch more thickly, but I have read several times lately in gardening magazines that new research shows that very thick mulches can actually repel rain and prevent soil from benefiting from all those medium to light showers that fall. So, 35-40mm is now the recommended depth for mulch here. They also say that coarse mulches are better than fine. Sugar cane mulch ticks all the boxes, and it's moderately priced without being truly cheap.

The black line on the right of the mulch is where one whole packet of curly parsley seed has gone, to extend the curly parsley border all the way round. I find parsley grows better from seed than seedlings (but it is slow to germinate, taking about 2-3 weeks usually). (Pictured top right is Mitchell, the garden's Librarian gnome, by the way).

Here's a selection of what went into the potager patch. Multi-coloured silver beet seed, curly parsley seed, lettuce seed and seedlings, shallots and carrot seedlings, dwarf marigold seedlings (mixed yellow and oranges), white vinca seedlings, ornamental kale seedlings (biggest mistake!), and two ornamental, colourful Thai chilli seedlings.

Here is it planted out back on November 9. Mostly mulch and shadows.

Over the next few weeks I fed the plants with Seasol and Nitrosol (mixed up 50:50 in a watering can). Seasol isn't a fertiliser, it's a soil conditioner which encourages roots to grow and generally helps plants establish faster. Nitrosol is labelled as 'liquid blood & bone' and it's a nitrogen-rich plant food. My other main duty during this time was to pick off all the flower buds from the marigolds, to encourage the plants to just grow. About two weeks ago, I switched over to feeding the marigolds with a 'flower and fruit' type of fertiliser, and let the forming flower buds get down to flowering.

And to repeat the first pic from this blog, here's the story this morning. On the far right of the patch the parsley border is just taking shape. It should really get going over the next few weeks. It's a bit lopsided looking, with holes here and there where the vincas haven't grown much yet.

Here's a slightly closer look at the potager this morning. It's nice and colourful and the plants are healthy, so I can't really complain. The chillies are the strange looking things with the yellow, pointy but bulbous fruits, centre-left of the shot. They'll eventually turn a mixture of colours – yellow, purple, red and black, I hope. A few problems, all minor, are worth noting.
1. Some of the lettuce has gone to seed already, and so could have been planted at least two to three weeks after the flower seedlings, so they all chimed in together. However, new lettuce seedlings added this morning should be looking good in a few weeks, and hopefully the marigolds and vincas will still be looking nice, and the ornamental chillies will have grown and coloured up a bit more.
2. The vinca seedlings are way, way behind the marigolds, so next time I'd just stick to one type of flower, rather than trying to get two types to coordinate their flowering, always a difficult task. (Blame it on my liking for white flowers, and the fact the vincas should be about the same height as the marigolds). Hopefully they'll catch up some time in January.
3. The ornamental kale (at the back) is of course a winter crop. I just found some seedlings for sale in a local nursery, foolishly asked the person there whether they'd cope with the heat, and took their word for it that they'd be OK, as they do look great. These plants of course have bolted faster than a startled racehorse. They'll be replaced by colourful silver beet, which is what I should have planted there in the first place.

So, as for the lessons from my first attempt at a potager patch, there are just a few. The main one is to keep it simple, which I didn't really do. The other is to let the flower seedlings get at least three or four weeks head start before planting fast-growing vegies like lettuce and silver beet. Slower-growing vegies like the carrots and shallots are OK to plant at the same time as the flower seedlings.

I expect that by the end of January or early February the little potager patch should be in its prime – but that all depends on how hot, humid and harrowing this summer will be. If we get lucky and have just an average, slightly wet and humid summer, I might have a few more photos to add. Time will tell, but it has been fun so far, nevertheless!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Speedy green beans

Who would have thought growing beans could be turned into a sport, but this week I've discovered the pleasures of bean racing. Perhaps it's not as noisy or as fast as the Indy 500, nor as gruelling and sweaty as an Olympic marathon, but at least bean racing is an honest competition, free of doping scandals – and the winner gets to make babies!

These are not my racing beans, but these climbing beans have inspired me to try growing smaller, dwarf beans, and they're my racing beans. I'll show you them in a moment. However, I have become very fond of humble bean flowers and the way the beans themselves form on plants, so I thought I'd start with a pretty photo of yet another baby bean coming into this world.

This is where the baby beans are coming from, my tower of climbing beans, but it has proved to be only a partial success. Yes, we're getting quite a good crop of 'Blue Lake' beans off these plants, but the (hidden) cutesy willow wigwam underneath all the leaves is at least one foot too short for the plants, and I suspect it's actually two feet too short. So there's a colossal snarl of climbing bean shoots at the top clinging to each other in a fairly sad and desperate manner. So I thought I'd also try growing some dwarf beans in a pot as well this summer and see how they go. They might suit my tiny garden better. And that's when I discovered bean racing.

I had a spare pot about 35cm high and wide, so I popped in three dwarf bush bean seeds and waited to see which one would do best. After a week of waiting, this is what I saw last Saturday, December 13. The rear bean streaking away, the left bean barely awake, and the right bean nowhere to be seen.

By Sunday, the right bean has finally made an appearance, but it seems too far behind already. The back bean is in front but lefty is catching up.

By Monday the right bean is nigh-on out of the running, but there's a chance that left bean could either do something spectacular and catch up with back bean, or a snail, cat, cockatoo or some other third party representing the Wild Kingdom could intervene in an untimely yet fateful way and nobble back bean's early lead.

Fast forward to Thursday and it's still a contest. Beans grow fast, don't they?

Saturday morning, December 20, Bean Finishing Line Day. I felt like awarding the prize to left bean purely because of the way it tirelessly made a contest of things all week (Aussies always support the underdog in any contest). But back bean was bigger and faster, and so...

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our winner, clearly the strongest of the three beans and hopefully also the best cropper, too. Time will tell.

I'm not sure whether the dwarf bean will be as attractive a plant as the climber, but I presume it will produce some equally fascinating flowers. These climbing bean flowers are perhaps not quite as pretty as the white flowers tinted with black streaks which you find on broad bean plants, but they're well worth admiring up close all the same.

These 'Blue Lake' beans have a lovely bean flavour, and they're especially nice to eat straight off the bush as a crisp, free-range gardener's snack. I like eating beans simply, just lightly steamed, but there is one way that I do cook them occasionally that comes from the Middle East. This recipe is from a book called "The Complete Middle East Cookbook" by Tess Mallos, a Sydney food writer. It's one of my kitchen bibles, with recipes from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and all the way across to Afghanistan. This dish is a standard part of Lebanese restaurant menus here in Sydney, and its name of 'Lubyi bi Zayt', translated that means 'Green Beans in Oil'.

Green Beans in Oil

500g green beans
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped, peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup water
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Wash beans well. Top and tail and remove strings if present. Cut into 5cm lengths, or slit them lengthwise.
2. Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Fry gently until transparent, add garlic and cook a few seconds longer.
3. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, water, sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Add the prepared beans and parsley, cover and simmer for a further 15-20 minutes until beans are tender. Serve hot or lukewarm, but they are also very good chilled.

My tips: depending on the beans used, I sometimes cook them for longer than the recipe says – up to 30-40 minutes, until well done. And these beans really can be eaten cold, lukewarm, warm or hot, and they keep very well in tupperware for several days, too. And the amount of oil is correct. A quarter cup, and I always use the nicest quality extra virgin olive oil I can find. This is a great way to cope with a bumper crop of beans, or at least take advantage of any kind of green bean when they're fresh, cheap, plentiful and in season.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hiding the ugly bits

In my previous posting (about our two different and very pretty Christmas bushes) I thought about including a photo of the NZ Christmas bush in-situ, blocking for passers-by the less than wonderful view of our narrow side passage cluttered with colourful wheelie bins for garbage and recycling. As I went out this sunny morning to recycle even more empty festive season wine bottles and assorted newspapers, I couldn't help but admire how nice our cane begonia looks right now. The NZ Christmas bush has just a few scraps of flowers left, but I've overcome my reluctance to display my garden's 'ugly bits' due to the begonia's radiance, so here goes...

Happy in its spot: brief morning sun and cool afternoon shade all year. The cane begonia is in full flower now. It's just in a large pot but you never see much of the pot, so dense is the foliage. And, as you look down the side passage towards the street, you primarily just see the begonia, although there's only so much you can hide. An air-conditioner unit and a water heater reside here, too, but at least they're not what your eye is drawn towards.

It's covered in these clusters of yellow-centred pure white blooms.

The leaf shapes have their own charm, too, crinkled at the edges and always seemingly with a new leaf on the way.

Overall the effect is green and lovely and lush, and from our living room we look out the window to these tall canes of green and white occasionally moving in the eddies of wind that work their way down the narrow passage. I only feed these plants with slow-release pellets applied once a year in spring, although they do need a fairly steady supply of water – roughly every second day in summer, much less often in winter.

Here's the plant I call "Son of". While repotting mother begonia last year into a bigger pot I broke off some bits (the canes are a bit fragile to handle) so all the broken-off bits were unceremoniously poked straight into this spare pot of mix that was sitting around looking unemployed. Though it's not the best looking setting, what with the bins to the left and the wall-mounted ladder behind, the effect of this pot is a delight for me. That's my home-office window behind the pot, and in just one and a bit years the broken-off cuttings have roared along, and now my very limited window view is no longer of just yucky metal fencing – it's becoming much more green, white and full of swaying life.

Such has been the success of the cuttings that I'm striking more for some friends with a similar side passage problem at their house. All of these seem to have taken and are showing signs of leaf growth already. The pot of cuttings is sitting on the green recycling bin, as I want them to strike and start growing in the same position, which must be perfect for their needs.

Now, whizzing out to the view from the street, this is the NZ Christmas bush in action, blocking your view of the wheelie bin collection. One thing I really like about the black pot here is that it has built-in pot feet, which provide excellent soil drainage yet also make it easy to occasionally rotate the pot to ensure even growth on all sides.

If you rubber-neck around the side of the pot you can still barely see the bins, so this one plant does its view-blocking job very well.

Couldn't resist repeating a shot of the NZ Christmas bush bloom from the last posting, even though the plant has largely finished flowering now (well ahead of schedule, unfortunately, but in the cooler NZ climate it keeps to the festive flowering timetable a lot better).

Nevertheless, its foliage is quite handsome in its evergreen way, and dense enough to provide the cover-up which was its initial assignment in life.

Looking deeper into the property, the side passage ends at the corner where Pam's home office and art studio is. The dense, glossy green leaves of the Murraya paniculata provide a tidy backdrop of green (plus big flushes of sweetly orange-flower-scented white blooms in summer, especially a few weeks after a really good soaking of rain). Ghostly grey streamers of Spanish moss help to soften the look of the metal fence. Down at ground level a gaggle of pots hides the raised garden bed in which the Murraya grows. On the left are the bromeliads and a Spathiphyllum, which is utterly irresistble to snails. And on the right is the hardiest plant in the garden, a foxtail fern, which I think should be renamed Weedus indestructibilis. It never gets watered, fed, repotted, thought about or kissed by sunlight much for that matter, and it has thrived there for at least a dozen years or more.

Covering up the ugly bits might be as simple as putting something green and dense in front of them, but the problem is finding something which does the job year-round. I imagine in extremely cold climates it's virtually not on, so you'd resort to built screens if the ugly bits really bothered you, but in an evergreen place like Sydney it's possible to create living green screens. All it takes is a dense and tough enough plant to handle the conditions. Luckily in the cane begonia and the NZ Christmas bush I've found plants that not only grow densely, but also chime in with some extraordinarily pleasing flowers, too. And all with just a couple of hours of morning sun a day. Great performers!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas southern style

As an immigrant nation of transplanted peoples, Australia is still rapidly changing and adapting the Northern Hemisphere's Christmas traditions to suit our climate, way of life and mix of peoples. In many homes, for example, the seafood barbecue has long ago replaced the roast turkey as the traditional Christmas feast. And out in our gardens several plants which bloom in the traditional colours of red and green, or at least at this time of year, have earned the name "Christmas Bush". We have two of them here at our place.

Pam bought a bunch of New South Wales Christmas bush today and popped it into a vase in the corner of our kitchen, as she likes to do every year. This is a native Australian plant with the name of Ceratopetalum gummiferum, but everyone just calls it Christmas bush. Though the vivid red highlights look like flowers, they're actually coloured bracts. Over the last month or two I've taken some shots of how they form.

Here's our Christmas bush in early October, flowering fairly heavily with its real, small white flowers. Though pleasant enough, they don't put on much of a show, nor do they smell especially nice. Our plant is in a pot and is kept small, but out in the bush these can form small trees 5-9 metres tall.

Here's how things progress by late October. The red bracts are starting to form in good numbers now, but it's not a rapid transformation.

By early November this year the bracts were showing their strongest colour. And that meant this year the timing was all-wrong! Way too early. They should be doing this now, not in early November, but that's Christmas bush for you, especially potted specimens, such as ours. And so that's why Pam bought a big bunch from the florist today. It's plentiful at this time of year, and florists stock a cultivar called 'Albery's Red' which has the strongest, most reliable red colouring.

Elsewhere on our property a New Zealand Christmas bush has joined the NSW Christmas bush in flowering too early, and so only the last stragglers are still in bloom now in mid December. This plant's botanical name is Metrosideros, and this is one of Pam's photos of it when it was in bloom several weeks ago. The Maori name for it is pohutakawa.

Here's another of Pam's photos of the NZ Christmas bush. Their flowers are spectacular starbursts of red needles topped with tiny glowing yellow tips, and the unopened buds are fuzzy frosted grey packets of pent-up energy.

There are lots of different sizes and shapes of Metrosideros around the Pacific. Some can become huge trees, others are shrubs, and most of them cope well with a position by the seaside (which is not where we are, by the way). Many different cultivars come from various Pacific Islands, to which it is also native. In New Zealand, it flowers around Christmas quite reliably, I hear. Here in Australia its ignominious job is to provide a green, flowering screen for our set of wheelie garbage and recycling bins when people look down our side passage from the street. A prisoner in a fairly big pot, it's about 1.5m high now, and at this size it does its screening job magnificently. I completely underestimated what a handsome thing it would become when I bought it.

Elsewhere in Australia, Western Australia has its own Christmas bush, a stunning golden-yellow-flowered tree, Nuytsia floribunda. And Victoria has the Victorian Christmas bush, Prostanthera lasianthos, usually with lots of pink flowers (although other colours exist, such as mauve, white or lilac), and always with highly fragrant foliage, as it belongs to the mint bush family. There are quite a few other plants with "Christmas" in their names in addition to these, but it's nice to have the NSW Christmas bush and its Kiwi mate here adding their own layers of red and green to the build-up to Christmas.

Our best wishes to you all, from Pam and Jamie.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Going green

Several people have inspired this little blog about all the different colours of green here in my garden. First of all, it was Patient Gardener's fine blog from last June – 'How Green is My Garden' – which showed so many shades of green in just one garden. I read that post just today, and I had already been thinking of doing something along the same lines, prompted by kind comments about my blog from northern hemisphere gardeners who are a bit short on greenery right now, as the cold whites, greys and blacks of winter have a grip on their garden's palette for the meantime. So, as it's a horribly windy day that isn't much fun for gardening here today, I whipped around with the camera instead, looking for shades of green.

First up, the lovely blue-green of a gum tree's leaves. This is our street tree, Eucalyptus lexucoxylon 'Rosea'. It bears pink flowers from April to October each year, and right now it's wearing a new flush of beautiful leaves. This blue-green is the colour which says 'Australia' to me most powerfully, so I thought I'd start with it, as it's the green I love best.

Another blue-green native plant, this is a groundcover form of the Cootamundra wattle, otherwise known as Acacia baileyana. Golden ball flowers in midwinter, delicate fern-like foliage the rest of the time.

And a silvery-green native, Correa alba, which teams with the Cootamundra wattle in the front garden.

Not all Aussie native plants are grey-green, silver-green or blue-green. This fresh, tropical green colour belongs to a native fern, the bird's nest fern, Asplenium australasicum.

This richer, darker, deeper green belongs to my bonsai Port Jackson fig, another native. These also make the biggest, widest-spreading park tree Sydney has to offer.

The tenacious little native violet loves its green shade, and makes its own contribution there, too.

Another Aussie native, this is the foliage of a lilly pilly, most of which are from rainforest zones. This is a specially bred hedging plant which reaches just 1m tall. Great cultivar name, though – 'Tiny Trev'.

Moving on from the natives to backyard foliage plants in general for a while. This is Ajuga reptans, a compact groundcover that does best in semi-shade here.

Rapidly covering the ugly brick wall of my neighbour's monstrous garage, this is the creeping fig, Ficus pumila. The pale leaves are the new season's growth.

The solid green of a geum's leaves are a classic shade of green.

Don't know what this plant is. Pam had it as a potted indoor office plant for a couple of years, but it grew straggly and so I planted it amongst the ferns. It has thrived there without misbehaving, or needing attention, for a couple of years, and it always looks interesting with its variegated green leaves.

My favourite hedging plant, Murraya paniculata, could have been included with the natives up at the start of this post, as it is listed as being native to Australia, as well as South-East Asia. The new growth streaking away from the hedge here is always the lightest green. Always seems a shame to have to trim it.

A festive New Zealander: Metrosideros, or the NZ Christmas Bush.

This green not only looks good, it smells wonderful, too. Well-named lemon-scented pelargoniums are one of the nicest plants to brush past, day or night.

This pelargonium has no scent, but it does produce pink flowers. However, its real appeal is light yellowy-green leaves, which seem to glow in the sunshine.

Succulents are an important part of the garden here, and their range of greens is not only pleasing but also varies as the seasons change. This is Crassula 'Campfire', which turns bright red in the winter cold.

Crassula argentea 'Coral' doesn't change colour through the year, but it's one of the larger plants in my succulent patch, and with its unusual hollow green leaves it always catches your attention.

Kalanchoe daigremontiana stands tall among the other potted succulents, its dramatic shape distracting you from noticing that its light green leaves are of a colour not found in any other plant in the garden.

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' will, as its name suggests, flower in autumn. Until then, we're perfectly content to admire its foliage.

Sempervivums add little maroon tips to their pleasing rosettes of green.

The succulents are such a sea of varied foliage colours.

And finally, we arrive at the edible greens, of which there are many. Above, it's the classic evergreen goodness of bay leaves.

The newborn deliciousness of chervil, happiest in the semi-shade.

The golden oregano is never all that golden in December, but by the end of summer its colour does justice to its name. Right now it's just light green.

Rosemary is this same slightly silvery green all-year-round. Never changes, except for the appearance of the blue flowers in late winter and early spring.

Sage is a long way down the silvery-green end of the spectrum. Every year I cut it back in mid spring, after it finishes flowering. On the left are the new-growth leaves, although it's such a willing flowerer that a few late straggler blooms are continuing on on the right.

This is my neighbour Nick's grapevine, thriving as usual on his pergola of galvanised metal pipes. Nick's wife, Katarina, makes the nicest dolmades (meat and rice filling, Sparta-style) from the young new grapevine leaves. And in fact our neighbour on the other side, Soula, who is also Greek, makes terrific dolmades (rice and herb filling, Macedonia-style) from their grapevines, too.

What's a story about garden greens without a green bean plant included? Already started harvesting the Blue Lake beans, and very nice and crisp they are, too.

Green Jalapeno chillies, hotting up for summer.

It's hard to beat the glossy green of citrus trees. I'd grow them even if they didn't bear fruit (but thank goodness they do).

Lettuce comes in so many different greens I could have posted just about them.

Pretty curly parsley makes the best little green border you can find.

And silver beet merely asks what kind of green do you want? I had several to choose from, so I went for yellow-centred classic mid-green.

My hanging basket of strawberries was just a very pleasant green for a few months, but lately it has been pushed into the sidelines by the delicious red fruit which are coming on in a steady supply now. It's still a nice shade of green.

And finally, a green that I am hoping will soon turn to red. A Grosse Lisse tomato being coaxed slowly towards the salad bowl. Yes you can!

As I compiled this rather long parade of garden greens it has occurred to me that some winter-bound garden bloggers up north will probably just be calling out "boo, hiss, get off the stage". Sorry if I have rubbed anyone up the wrong way!

However, my sister Helen has just flown over to Calgary in Canada, where things are around -20°C and getting colder, and there's definitely not much green happening outdoors. She's having a great time catching up with her daughter and her grandchildren, but she is missing a couple of things about home right now, so this blog is for you, sis!