Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year, fresh start

This little person is not only celebrating a new year, he or she is just starting his or her first year. Yesterday, junior made his/her debut, perched on our clothesline taking in the unfamiliar surroundings, wondering what in the hell was going on.

You've left the nest, kiddo, start feeding. Unruly, fluffed-up feathers and a bewildered look; noisy squawking as soon as a parent appears, saying 'feed me, feed me' – still just a kid.

But all the parent does is ignore junior, fly to the nearest flowering grevillea and say to the kid – 'you're on you're own now darling, have a taste of this sweet nectar and instinct will kick in'. These native grevilleas are remarkable plants, in flower virtually year-round. Its main flowering peaks are in late spring and autumn, but here it's midsummer and the flowers are plentiful.

As well as the reddy-orange flowered grevillea, we also have this two-toned 'Peaches & Cream' grevillea in our backyard – a plentiful supply of nectar – and here is either Mr or Mrs Wattlebird tucking into his/her favourite flavour. Always feeding and clucking together as a pair, these two birds have been an item in both our neighbourhood and our backyard for several years, but for some reason this is the first time we have spotted one of their babies with them. Maybe it's the first one to survive, or perhaps we just haven't noticed the big event before (but I doubt that, we're out in the garden all the time).

Whatever the real story I am simply glad to see the new arrival. It marks the new year and the new beginnings such an occasion implies very nicely.

Happy New Year to all baby birds, fellow bloggers, blog-readers, lurkers, gardeners and passers-by.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tomato season greetings

This is how tomato growing should be. Gluts. Too many tomatoes, and more coming through every day. Giving tomatoes away to friends and family. Eating tomatoes with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Harvesting even more tomatoes and watching them slowly, beautifully, change from green to red.

I've got two baskets going. Ripe and ripening. The ripe ones (mostly Alaskas in this shot) are being used in all sorts of ways. In salads, naturally. And in tomato salads where tomatoes and fresh basil leaves plus maybe a bit of feta cheese or bocconcini cheese are all you need. And at lunch, toast topped with slices of tomato and cheese, grilled. And in the evening, in sauces, such as the fragrant, spicy chicken curry I made the other night (the Beaver Lodges worked a treat in that role). And of course quite a few are given away to people like Pam's mum, Val, who's a great fresh fruit and garden salads fan.

I've learned that if I leave the tomatoes to ripen to a rich red colour on the vine, some of them get eaten by nocturnal visitors. In my inner-city area, that probably means rats, as they are common enough here (outside in the garden, not inside the house, thankfully!), but there's an outside chance it could be some kind of native marsupial, but that's not very likely. 98% chance of rats, 2% chance of a local furry guy. So as soon as the tomatoes start to turn in colour, I harvest them, and in this warm summer weather they only take a couple of days more indoors in the wire basket, away from any sunshine, to ripen. Their flavour seems every bit as good as the fully-vine-ripened ones.

Red and green are the classic colours of Christmas, aren't they? The tomato season and the festive season, they're a natural pairing.

To everyone who drops by to visit my blog, I hope this festive season is a safe, happy and good one for you all. I've been watching the TV reports of the awful, chilly, snowy weather on the other side of the planet and I simply hope you're all warm and cosy and having a good time with the ones you love. And to all my friends here on the southern side of the planet, I hope you have a long, hot, wonderful summer cooled by regular downpours of rain at some convenient time – say, Tuesday nights. Wouldn't that be lovely?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mango season greetings

The festive season brings many enjoyable treats into our lives, and for the last 11 years one favourite regular event is getting mangoed-out with a big tray of ripe, fresh mangoes. The guy I work for, Don, has made a very welcome tradition of giving each of his staff a hamper of Christmas goodies that's always topped with a tray of mangoes, and this year was no exception. Thank you Don!

This is the 2009 tray of Bowen mangoes, and it smells as lovely as it looks. Bringing it home from the office yesterday, the car was filled with tropical mango scents.

They're ripening fast and we won't be able to eat them all, so our friends always share in the bounty. Pam's making a mango dessert to take to a get-together tonight. Not sure what's in it but she asked me to buy some white rum and shredded coconut yesterday, and that's all I know.

While it's possible to grow mangoes here in Sydney it's a bit too cool to do it well, and crops can take up to two years to mature, and they're not a patch on the real tropical mangoes. So I don't bother. But each summer I feast on mangoes, and one of my favourite recipes is the simplest. Cheater's mango ice-cream. Very simple, and very deliciously mangoey at the same time.

Cheater’s mango ice-cream

2/3 to 3/4 of a tub of plain vanilla ice-cream, softened almost to room temperature

the flesh of 2 ripe mangoes

Let the ice-cream soften till it’s almost runny. Puree the flesh of the mangoes in a food processor. Stir the pureed mango into the ice-cream and mix it in well. Put into the freezer.

After 2 hours, take the ice-cream out of the freezer and whip the ice-cream, to break up the ice crystals. Re-freeze. After another hour or so, do the same thing again, whipping the almost-frozen ice-cream. That should make the ice-cream nice and smooth.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Salad days – the taste test

Well, after much nervousness here, and eager beaver first sightings of ripening colour here, the salad days have finally arrived. My tomatoes have ripened, they're yummy and they've come through the taste test with flying colours! Who would have thunk such things possible?

Blognoscenti, I give you a small but perfectly formed Alaska tomato on the left, and a normal sized and thoroughly handsome Beaver Lodge Slicer on the right. On average, the Alaskas measure 44mm (1.7 inches) in diameter and the Beaver Lodges 68mm (2.7 inches).

On a subjective 10 point scale, with 10 being the best, the Alaska rates a totally delicious 8, which is very tomatoey and will star in many salads in coming weeks. The Beaver Lodge Slicer gets a very good 7 out of 10, which is still very tomatoey and much, much better than anything I can buy in the shops, but not quite as tomato-tangy as the nice little Alaskas.

The texture on both is fine, but again I like the Alaska just that little bit more, 8 for texture. The Beaver Lodge gets 7 for texture, too. It's a tiny bit squishy but not too bad that way, while the Alaska holds itself together nicely for tossing in salads. I sliced up a Beaver Lodge in a lunchtime salad sandwich today and it really made that sanger something special. Maybe I should give it 8 for flavour, too? It was really nice.

So, why not 10 for taste? Well, I like to be a hard marker on tomatoes, just in case I come across something truly awesome one of these days. I have tasted some 9s in my time, but I'm saving up 10 for heaven. If I spent my '10' too soon then I'd have to do a Spinal Tap trick (if you've seen the movie you'll know what I mean) and give my best-ever tomato 11 out of 10.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Recently, while taking a few random photos in the garden, hovering directly above some plants, I was suddenly reminded of my one-and-only helicopter ride many years ago. I enjoyed hovering back then, and I still do. As ever, click on the photos to make them bigger if you like.

You can see why they call it butter lettuce. Luscious, creamy and yummy.

Cos lettuce, on the other hand, is a snappier chap, crisper, destined to become Caesar.

Soft, curly leaf parsley looks positively pointy when you get up close.

French tarragon refuses to conform! "I will wander wherever it pleases me, monsieur."

From my helicopter, suddenly I was seeing whirligigs everywhere. Basil propellors.

Oh no – an unsuspecting photographer caught in a flying net of lemongrass.

Twin-engined turbo-prop curry trees ready for take-off.

Up, up and away and we're over the Amazon, or is that just Ajuga reptans up close?

An Italian firework, the spinning Crassula.

High over the lofty Salvia forest, the blue tipped spires are dusted with snow.

While out on the savannah, a lone orange Zinnia says 'land here, there's a party about to start'.

I really should go for another helicopter ride one of these days. My first and only one was about half an hour over Sydney Harbour and the city, a spectacular place on a sunny day, which it was. It must be close to 30 years ago and yet I still remember so many details of it vividly.

The whole experience was brilliant, but I did enjoy hovering. That was otherworldly fun, not really flying because you weren't going anywhere. Wave at the people in the tall skyscraper! Look down on the toy ocean liners on the harbour and the ants walking on the streets.

In the meantime I'll just keep on hovering with my camera every now and then, when I feel that whirring sensation in my brain taking over.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A change of diet

We're having a mini version of a white Christmas here in Sydney at the moment – our potted citrus tree is flowering like it has never flowered before. It looks great and smells sweet, but it's especially pleasing because it shows that the change in the plant's diet which I started mid-way through the year seems to be paying off.

Last weekend and the tree was much more thickly covered in blooms compared with previous years. Sure, it's getting older and that may have something to do with it, but I have changed its feeding so it gets light feeds once a month in the warm growing season, and once every six weeks during the cooler months. That's a lot more often than in previous years, when I fed it about once every three months at best.

I made this change on the suggestion of a workmate, Geoffrey, an expert gardener whose suggestions are always well worth following. He says that every time we water a potted plant we wash some nutrients out of the soil, and so the best idea is to regularly replenish potted soils with nutrients (do it lightly, not too much). I could just use a slow-release fertiliser for this job, but I prefer to feed all of my citrus trees with organic chicken manure. And so I now give the plant just a handful of chicken manure pellets once a month, followed immediately by a good watering. The other main thing with the potted citrus is to put the pot up on pot feet, so the water drains away. And that means no saucers!

I am convinced this change of feeding regime has worked. Like all citrus, the cumquat blooms are sweetly scented, but they are short-lived. They're in a hurry to become fruit, and that suits me fine.

This morning, many of the flowers have dropped their petals already and left behind the tiny makings of a fruit that will now take months to grow and ripen.

This of course is a photo of last year's crop, which was pretty good. Cumquats are a bitter citrus that are most often turned into jams, marmalade or pickled in an alcohol such as brandy and sugar as a dessert condiment. To tell the truth, I grow this tree as much as an ornamental plant as a useful crop – but I do like cumquat marmalade! The fruit are marvellously decorative on the tree and last there for many weeks. In fact last year I kept on delaying the harvest just because the potted tree, with its attractive, glossy green leaves, looked so pretty covered in orange fruits.

Finally, another use for potted citrus trees – festive cheer! Pam put out our Santa gnome, Ravi, to guard the potted cumquat then decorated the tree with tinsel. We had a bunch of old friends around for a Christmas barbecue get-together last night, and the tinselly cumquat really helped to set the scene.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The obvious solution

So, what's wrong in this photo? That's right, the right-hand pot is empty. The obvious solution is to plant something there. Now, I'm not much of a garden designer, but my hunch is another white-flowered plant would probably do the trick. It's the obvious solution. But what have I done the last couple of weeks? Jotted down in my mental 'to do' list the item "get another white-flowered impatiens for the wall pot". And what occurred to me last weekend? That's right, strike a cutting from the other plants, you idiot!

There once was a white-flowered impatiens in the right-hand pot, but it suffered from a disease which I can only describe as 'wilty guts'. It received the same food and water as its mates on the left and it just wilted its heart out and died in mid-November. And so I removed the plant, the potting mix and scrubbed out the pot. And then last weekend it finally dawned on me to take a cutting of the New Guinea impatiens (the one on the left). Being a tropical plant it should love the weather right now. The one in the middle is a 'normal' impatiens, ie, it's not from the tropics.

Roots started to form on the New Guinea impatiens cutting within days in this jar of water. This is it on Wednesday this week.

And this is it on Friday, today. Ready, willing and able – and growing like crazy. As well as the roots in the middle of the pot, if you look carefully there's another clutch of them at the bottom of the jar as well.

With a willingness to grow like that, I decided that the longer I delayed potting it up the longer I'd have to wait for flowers. So into some fresh potting mix in the late afternoon, watered in with some seaweed solution to help it settle in and hopefully it will starting leaping ahead rapidly.

Hopefully, by about the end of January it should be looking the part, just like its neighbours. I'll give it a quarter-strength liquid feed weekly, and hopefully I'll be able to trick it into thinking that it's back in the New Guinea highlands, where everything grows like crazy and the nutrients trickle down daily.

This is the role model for the young 'un – Uncle Moresby, the New Guinean organ donor who kindly provided the vigorous cutting that will grow up to become his nephew, Lae. Hopefully the new plant will be a chip off the old block.

Really, though. It should have occurred to me the moment old Wilty Guts carked it to take some cuttings and replace him quick smart. It was the obvious solution!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Organic fruit fly controls

There's one thing getting in the way of Australia's great tomato-growing climate and us enjoying bumper crops of tomatoes – and that's the fruit fly. This tiny insect likes to lay its eggs in all sorts of fruits, including tomatoes. When the eggs hatch into grubs inside the fruit, it is quickly ruined. It's so disappointing to cut open a tomato and find someone else, a lousy little larva, already enjoying it. Fink.

The closer you get to the tropics the worse the problems with this pest become, but temperate Sydney is plenty warm enough for this insect to be a serious pest here too. As most of us backyard food gardeners are doing everything organically, the big problem is controlling insect pests organically. It's not easy.

It certainly can be done, but it needs persistence to succeed. Fortunately I am just the sort of persistent nutter that organic gardening needs as a recruit, and so I thought I'd do a blog about the two different organic pest control methods I am using this summer to control fruit fly. One is hi-tech and uses modern, organic, low-toxic products which are the results of excellent science. The other is low-tech and comes from my kitchen cupboard. Both work.

First, the hi-tech gear. Both Nature's Way Fruit Fly Control and Eco-Naturalure are based on Spinosad, which is derived from naturally occurring soil bacteria. This ingredient is now widely used to control various insect pests in gardening and commercial agriculture. When you open the bottles, both products are a thick black gloop which you mix up in a small spray bottle with water, and spray near (but not on) the crops you want to protect.

You should not spray the product on the fruit itself, as it is designed to attract the insects. Once they ingest the liquid, it then kills them. Pictured here, it's sprayed on an outlying tomato plant leaf (I spray it in several spots each time, and not in the same spot repeatedly, as doing that can lead to other problems such as sooty mildew).

Each product sounds great in theory and works OK in practice, but they do wash off in rain, so you need to re-apply them after rain. And you need to reapply them after several days anyway. You absolutely need to fully read the label before using either product. They are safe to use and won't harm you or your plants, so that isn't why you need to read the label. You just need to mix it up correctly, then re-apply it fairly often in the right places and at the right time. Use it incorrectly and it might not work, and as they aren't cheap that's just a major waste of money.

However, as a back-up system to the fancy products I have also set up a Vegemite trap for fruit flies. This worked well last year, but be warned, it catches lots of ordinary flies, not just fruit flies. It's gruesomely effective! So here we go...

If you don't know what Vegemite is you obviously aren't Australian. Ask an Aussie about it the next time you meet one. It's a breakfast spread for toast or bread. However, it is an 'acquired taste' that should be spread very thinly, especially if you're a Vegemite newbie. I love it, as many Aussies do. For a fruit fly trap you need 1 heaped teaspoon Vegemite, dissolved in 500ml warm water.

The warm water just makes it easier to dissolve the Vegemite. Give it several good stirs, as it does take a while for all of it to dissolve.

Next, pour the liquid into your trap. To make your trap you'll need a couple of clear plastic soft drink bottles and a bit of wire to hang it up somewhere.

This is a fairly deluxe Vegemite fruit fly trap, actually. We cut the top few inches off one plastic drink bottle to make our 'entrance' funnel, then cut a hole in side of another bottle and stuffed the funnel in. A simpler design is to just make several holes around the middle of the bottle to allow the flies to enter the bottle and find out what is that alluring smell in there!

As you can see, this large entrance funnel just makes it a little easier for the flies to land and wander in. Or at least that's the theory.

In the top of the bottle, just under the screw cap, we punched a hole in either side and threaded some wire through to make a handle to hang the trap somewhere. Last year we hung it near some tall staking tomatoes, and God it looked ugly!

So this year I have discreetly placed the aesthetically-challenged killing machine very close to my Alaska tomato plants and hopefully it will prove as deadly and attractive as it was last year. I've watched these fruit flies in action, and they are great wanderers and seekers. I am sure they will find my trap, check in but never check out.

Finally, the reason for all this dastardly insect warfare – my babies. The Alaskas ripen daily, so too the Beaver Lodge Slicers across the way. The taste test is only days away, and I don't want to cut open my first tomatoes and find grubs inside. Now that would be a horror movie!

Miscellaneous munchies

At this time of the year all of the food plants in my garden are competing with each other to see who can grow the fastest, but if you're not a lettuce you probably will be an also-ran.

In just a few more days these lettuce will be beyond their best, and so yes, I have planted too many (I usually do), but aren't they pretty with their variety of colours and shapes? Just a week ago none of them were touching and now they're jostling for space. I'm to blame – or at least the liquid seaweed which I've been applying fortnightly is to blame.

Last Saturday morning the words 'Thai Eggplant' were not on my horizon. No radar contact at all. But by Saturday evening, what do you know – there's a Thai eggplant in my garden. That's what you get for aimlessly wandering around a garden centre with the simple mission of plugging up a hole in the garden. The plant I had in mind (a small flowering shrub) I learned would not be available for a few more months, and so what could I grow there that could be pulled up in a few months' time? Well, it turns out the answer is Thai eggplant (they're little spherical eggplants). I've never grown one before, so that sealed the deal.

As this is just a posting on 'miscellaneous munchies' I thought I'd finish off with a few tips for those trying to grow some kind of food plants in too much shade. Essentially, most vegies won't grow in shade, but some herbs will love it there. This is yet another pot of chervil, grown from seed. This herb has a delicate flavour with a touch of aniseed, but not too much. Pam chops it finely and sprinkles it over zucchinis, and it transforms those somewhat bland vegies. French cookery uses a lot of chervil, so though it's not a common herb it's a ripper in a shady spot, and looks quite pretty. It's a bit short-lived, but this pot should last 3-4 months, and I'll sow some more seed in autumn and it'll come up.

Good old mint is the other mainstay of shady spots. I plan to give this pot of mint to someone as I have more than enough already. After trimming back my mint a while back, I just stuck some of the trimmings into a glass of water and in a few days they formed roots. These plants are vigorous! As long as mint gets water and liquid feeds it will never let you down. And in the kitchen, try it as a coriander substitute in cooking Asian food. Once heat is applied to it, mint does quite a good job of adding a coriander-like tang.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Welcome returns

In warm, evergreen Sydney we don't have all that many deciduous plants, and oddly enough my favourite deciduous plant doesn't even come from a cool climate. It's tropical, it's the frangipani, and it's back in leaf and fragrant bloom. Welcome back!

Easily my favourite flower fragrance, sweet frangipanis produce the same reaction in people as roses do. Without hesitation, almost everyone who comes across a frangipani bends their head to sniff the fragrance and comes up smiling. It is such a lovely perfume.

Grown from a largeish cutting taken a few years back (thanks, Krissy!), our little frangipani tree is doing well on its simple regime of 'no extra water, no fertiliser'. Just leave it alone and it should do well here in Sydney. In many neglected gardens in my local area the frangipanis are magnificent. Mine will take another decade or more to become a shady tree. It's a slow grower.

We often pick frangipani flowers to bring inside to float in shallow bowls of water for a day. As you can see there are plenty of buds forming, so the supply should last for months.

While there are many different frangipani flower colours to choose from, I much prefer the classic yellow-centred white blooms. A lot of people have told me that they do, too. Perhaps it has to do with meeting these, the most common frangipanis in childhood, falling in love with them then, and never having eyes for anything else. Some of the other colours available do have a touch of the bordello about them, garish lipstick hues.

I never tire of the scent of my frangipani. Most days when I'm out in the garden doing ordinary chores such as watering or weeding or whatever, I'll pop over to the frangipani for a moment for a 'hit' of sweet simplicity. It's my catnip.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is that a blush of red I see?

Well, isn't red an exciting colour! Though I have been keeping an eye on my tomatoes, daily, this morning they still caught me by surprise. My 'Alaska' tomatoes are ripening rapidly, and their relatives across the path, the 'Beaver Lodge Slicers' are starting to colour up, too. And it's happening fast now. Yippee!

These are the two most advanced Alaska fruits, but as the plants are big, sprawling bushes covered in developing fruits, these will hopefully be the first of many.

This is what I mean by big sprawling bush. Most of the greenery in the centre foreground of this shot are two Alaska tomato plants, gone berserk while on holidays Down Under in sunny Sydney. They have swamped my parsley border and even monstered my potted mint, which is quite an achievement, and they're giving my sage bush cause to worry, too. The herbs are not amused!

On the other side of the pathway the 'Beaver Lodge Slicer' tomatoes are smaller and better behaved plants overall (but the fruits are bigger than the Alaskas), and they're just starting to colour up, too. Of course the all-important taste test is a few (several?) days away, but I am just hoping that a few Alaskas will be OK to eat by next Saturday, when we have a bunch of friends coming around for lunch.

Finally, I was given a link (by a US tomato grower by the name of Smope - thank you Smope) to a cool blog entry that photographically shows the progress of a tomato from flower bud to ripe fruit, and then beyond, to rotten fruit. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I give you, the progress of a tomato fruit, from bud to fruit (and beyond).