Saturday, February 28, 2009

Too easy

Unless you're gardening in Antarctica or the Atacama, there are usually a few plants which thrive marvellously well in your district, and yet no-one calls them weeds, because they're not. Here in Sydney there is one plant which is ubiquitous in this way – Murraya paniculata. It's everywhere, and I have eight of them growing on my tiny property, in various spots (seven trimmed into hedges, and one trimmed to fill an awkward space). This is my problem-solver plant, my "go-to" shrub. If I have a nasty assignment for a plant, the murraya gets the gig. Predictably enough, various friends who are professional gardening writers here in Sydney sneer at murrayas. "Too easy" they cry!

Here's the biggest of my murrayas, magnificently filling the role of "please won't something grow under that big olive tree and give a green backdrop to our outdoor dining area". I had tried a couple of other things there in the early days but they all struggled in the shade and the root competition from the olive. "Step aside folks, let a murraya show how it's done." It's been here for years now, and this is it pictured this afternoon, aglow with fresh young foliage following its routine cut-back a month or so ago.

This murraya is a summer-bloomer mostly, and gets its other common names of orange jessamine and (confusingly, for Philadelphus fans) mock orange. The scent of these flowers is almost too sweet, as it's every bit as sweet as an orange tree's scent. On a perfectly still summer morning, opening the back door and getting a waft from the murraya is like walking through the cosmetics section of a department store, where those pretty salesthingies spray shoppers walking past as if they're sheep needing a perfume drench. But I digress... Murraya blooms are fairly short-lived, but you can get a number of flushes of blooms from them, usually a couple of weeks after some heavy rain, as happened this time round.

The other seven murrayas I have on site are all hedging plants. This hedge (three plants in all) does a stirling job hiding the mess of the composting and potting area. Surprisingly it has also turned out to be a favourite home and shelter for small birds such as wrens, bulbuls and silvereyes. My other murraya hedge is at the front of the house, in the worst imaginable spot for a hedge. It's the hedge across the front of our building, which faces south-south-west. So this spot gets no sun for about four months a year in winter plus the worst of the hot afternoon summer sun. And yet it's also dense and green, in bloom and thriving, and has been doing wonderfully well there for the last half-dozen years.

One of the things I love about my Murraya paniculatas, though, is the new foliage which erupts after each cutback. It's a lovely young, fresh, vivid green.

One little-known fact about Murraya paniculata – and this will surprise many Australian gardeners – is that it's listed in the native gardener's bible 'Australian Native Plants', by Wrigley and Fagg, as being native to Australia. It's also a native of South-East Asia as well as northern Australia, but the odd thing is that it thrives so well in temperate Sydney, given that it comes from our tropical north. Down here, these plants are not attacked by pests, need little or no feeding, survive on our natural rainfall and grow in sun, shade or semi-shade.

I do have one other Murraya growing in my garden, and I've mentioned it a few times before in my blog. My beloved curry leaf tree, Murraya koenegii. Here's it's foliage, for comparison with its cousin's foliage, pictured just before this one.

The curry leaf tree's flowers are smaller and less conspicuous than the orange jessamine's, and they have no scent.

There are far more berries than flowers on the curry leaf tree at the moment, and this afternoon, while taking a few shots for this blog, I made an interesting find. As I mentioned in my last blog, my wife Pam is doing a botanical illustration course at the moment, and she's working on a piece on the curry leaf tree. For her course she takes in snippets of leaves and berries from her tree, and now some of the people in the course want to have their own curry leaf tree. Where do you get them, they ask?

They're easy enough to find here in Sydney. I bought mine many years ago as a little seedling for sale in a pot in an Indian spices shop here in Sydney. I occasionally see them in garden centres, too, but the fact is they grow very easily from seed. I popped some seeds in a pot a week or two back and the first one is up this morning. Here it is.

However, while I was walking around my potted curry leaf tree I looked down and noticed half a dozen seedlings coming up from berries which have dropped off the tree. I dug them up carefully, trying to take as much soil as I could, and transferred them to some pots of mix. Each seedling had a good little root system going, and so by this time next week we'll know how many have survived the trauma of my clumsy midday transplanting efforts. And by the end of next week the other four seeds which I sowed in the pot should have come up as well. And, with fingers crossed, we should be able to give little memento curry leaf trees to Pam's fellow course members a few weeks from now.

The incredible ease with which the curry leaf tree seeds have sprouted should sound warning bells that this is probably a weed of the future, of course, but whether something is a weed or not is all about climate and soil. When a plant loves your climate and your soil, it grows like a weed. Take it somewhere not so ideal, and it's just another tree.

I can understand my gardening-writer friends who poo-poo the Murraya paniculatas of Sydney. Sure, there's no challenge in growing it, and it really is used so often in landscaping here that it's truly boring. "Oh look, a murraya hedge," is something you'll never hear around these parts...

But I love the way Murraya paniculata can fill a truly dreadful spot in the garden with vivid, lush greenery, unfailing good health and sweetly scented white blooms. Provided it's grown somewhere truly daunting, where many other plants have tried and failed, it's well worth admiring!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Curses & blessings

Isn't it one of life's bummers the way curses and blessings come packaged together in the one thing? Here in this Sydney summer garden, my own blessed curse is rapid growth. Marvellous blessing, ongoing curse, all at the same time. I know, I can hear my friends from the frozen north (of the planet, not Australia) saying "bring it on, I can handle it", but living in a land of rapid growth has its interesting moments and never-ending workloads, especially after a week of rain.

Making yet another attempt to take over my garden, my neighbour Nick's outrageously healthy grapevine. Looks like a horde of green cavalry swarming over the hill. Charge!

Tendrils waving in the wind seeking something – anything – to grab onto, a grapevine is a wonderful creature to watch at work. Underneath the vine, in Nick's outdoor living area, it's shady and cool and the light itself takes on a soothing, green tinge. Alas for me, Nick gets the blessings and I get the curse with this plant's relentless growth, but I don't mind, really. I've been cutting his vine back for many years now, so it's just an annual ritual from about December through to the end of March. Then Nick cuts back the whole lot in midwinter, ready to start all over again. Rhythm of life, and all that stuff, wouldn't have it any other way.
On the other side of my property, my neighbour Michael has been inspired by Nick's success and guess what? Yep, he's growing a grapevine, too. Well, Michael, like Nick, is Greek, and they've just done up their outdoor living area, too. Michael is a generous "barbecued whole lamb on a spit" kind of entertainer, so he needs shade for his many cheerful guests. Fair enough. Michael's new grapevine loves my olive tree, unfortunately – it's the ideal twiggy thing for it to climb up. After a couple of weeks of steady rain and warmth, about eight leaders have made their way to the top of the olive tree, but thanks to my trusty new pole pruner, their evil schemes have been thwarted (until next time)!

How could this mild-mannered hedge find its way into a blog about curses and blessings? That's easy, given the weather we've had lately. This hedging plant is a form of native lilly pilly with the lovely cultivar name of 'Tiny Trev'. Most lilly pillies are rainforest plants, and deep down they love rain more than anything else. Over the last two weeks these guys went from neatly blessed hedges to accursed harassers of all who dared open the gate. Friends would run the gauntlet of Terrible Trev's green, clammy fingers and arrive with wet shoulders. And so this morning, between occasional showers of rain, I administered a dose of neatly clipped discipline, and turned Terrible into Tiny once more.

One little thing I like about the whole hedge-trimming thing is the way the hedge feels afterwards, to the touch. It's wobbly, just like lime jelly. One or two passers-by who stopped for a chat were drawn to the hedge, too. They had to touch it, make it wobble, too. A hedge is more a substance than a plant!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Idle idyll

Too much of a good thing right now. Wet days, plenty of them, above average February rainfall after a too-dry January. Fair enough. The only thing an idle gardener can do at the moment is wander around during a break in the rain and enjoy the scenery. Rain softens summer gardens here in Sydney – like a delicious sauce it adds complexity to the dish.

My healthy, happy, potted cumquat, all dolled up in pearls. Its summer flush of flowers has just given way to reveal a host of little fruits eagerly making their way in life.

Next door to my potted cumquat is my friend, Michelle's, potted cumquat, which I am baby-sitting for her while she and her husband, Evan, spend a year in the Outback discovering the other Australia. For some strange reason, Michelle's cumquat is about two to three weeks more advanced in flowering and fruiting than mine. Both plants are the same variety, in the same spot in the garden, next to each other, and they receive an identical regime of food, water and encouragement from me. Yet Michelle's plant finished flowering three weeks ago and is steaming ahead with fruit formation, while mine happily lags behind at all times. One of life's little mysteries, but the main thing is that both plants are doing well (and you'll get another batch of home-made cumquat marmalade later this year, Michelle!)

As well as babysitting Michelle's potted cumquat, I'm also looking after Evan's standard 'Friesia' rose. Ever since I gave it a light mulch of old cow manure, plus a treatment with a soil wetting agent, it has really started to power along beautifully, a much happier chap. Such a lovely scent to its yellow roses, many of which make their way indoors into Pam's little empire of vases, which are dotted like pretty little forts guarding bookcases and ledges here and there throughout the house.

Speaking of lovely scents, these scented-leaf pelargoniums (rear, left) smell heavenly on this moist morning. The other participants in this pleasingly green scene are a golden marjoram (front left), potted mint (front right) and Murraya (rear, right). The trunk in the centre belongs to an olive tree, by the way.

The berries on the potted curry leaf tree are changing colour from red to black at the moment. My wife Pam does botanical illustration in watercolours, and she has chosen the curry leaf tree as her subject for a course she's doing at the Sydney Botanic Gardens, doing studies of its flowers, berries and leaves. Can't wait to see the completed work, but I will have to wait, as she doesn't like to hurry these things. She takes her own time, and the results are always a thing of lasting beauty.

After a snooze through the dry heat of January, the new 'Eureka' lemon tree has perked up wonderfully in the February rain. And, as part of the annual routine with citrus here, I'll be feeding all of them this weekend. I feed the greedy in-ground plants twice a year, in late February and late August (the potted citrus are given lighter feeds every six weeks). Citrus love their pelletised chicken manure, which adds a certain farmyard aroma to Amateur Land for about 48 hours, but it keeps them very happy, even if Pam and the neighbours aren't always thrilled.

Everywhere on this idle morning the garden is gently sagging under its shiny coat of rain. Coleus Corner is much more maroon-hued than in any previous year, but that's OK with me. I think this colour scheme is probably at its best in the rain. The more varied and colourful versions of Coleus Corner of other years looked better in the sunshine, but on a rainy day I like this darker, moodier scheme best.

So, there's no weeding, no trimming, no jobs to do at all this idle weekday morning. Just a few minutes during a break in the rain in my soggy little idyll before getting down to work. The perfect start, really.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Constant change

A much-needed 21mm of rain in the gauge after last night, and 62mm the morning before – that's good blogging weather. Nothing to do outside, except get muddy and walk it back into the house, if I really want to end the tidy domestic bliss. And besides, I've been meaning to do a little blog about constant change, one of the themes here in Amateur Land. The sunniest patch in my garden is, of course, in the centre, and it measures a whopping 1.3 metres by 1.3 metres. This is a hard-working, constantly changing little pile of dirt. Here's the story of its last 12 months.

January 2007, the patch in question is the one on the right middle-ground, next to the clothes line. There are handy little crops of shallots and basil that are always heading into the kitchen – and the curly parsley border, though mostly for show, makes the odd cameo here and there in the cooking pot.

A few months later, in March 08, we've cleared the decks, dug in the mulch, added some old chicken manure to keep the worms amused, and dolomite lime to raise its pH, and we're getting ready for winter vegies, such as Chinese cabbage, choy sum, turnips, beetroot, radishes and spinach. (The bamboo frame in the bed behind is for broad beans, by the way.)

About eight weeks later and the crops are belting along, a bit nibbled here and there by appreciative katydids and other insect visitors, but when you do it organically it's hard to look pristine. The best you can manage is to look healthy.

Harvests of Chinese cabbage and turnips destined for the kitchen. I like to stir-fry the finely shredded cabbage with spices (onion, garlic, ginger, chilli, turmeric, panch phoron (which is an Indian five-seed mix) and the magic ingredient sprinkled at the end – desiccated coconut. The turnips often end up in an Indian sauce called saag, which is an Indian-style puree of leafy greens – the turnip roots add body to the puree.

Once the Asian greens, turnips and other crops were harvested, the little sunny patch then became potato land in late winter. Here it is on planting day, with deep furrows dug, ready for the spuds to go in.

After a sluggish start the potatoes roared away by late September and into October, looking a picture of health through the deliciously kind spring weather.

Though they'll never be famed for their flowers, the potato plants brought a cheery innocence to the garden with the simplicity of their blooms and honest deep green of their foliage.

Bandicooted out of the ground and scrubbed up, these King Edward potatoes really were a deliciously good-looking reward for not a lot of effort on my part. But there is a downside with growing spuds in a very tiny backyard. Once the flowers fade and the plants put all their energy into developing the tubers underground, they become appallingly ugly looking scraps of rapidly fading greenery! I was prompted into an early harvest by the shocking sight one morning of these bedraggled tramps taking centre stage in my lovely garden. Wonderful as the home-grown spuds were to eat, I'm not sure if my tiny garden has enough room for scrappy spud plants to take centre stage every year.

After clearing the patch of the hills and all their potatoes in early December, I've given the patch a cheery, easy-going summer holiday by planting a punnet of small, simple, zinnias. Somewhere in the middle of all that colour there's a Habanero chilli bush struggling for survival. It's flowering and I can see the little green chillies forming, but the astonishing progress of the zinnias has really surprised me.

So, in a mere 12 months this little 1.3 metre square of ground has been a salad and herb patch; vegie bed of Asian greens and turnips; a potato patch; and a colourful fairground of summer flowers. For the next couple of months I think I'll just let the zinnias do their thing, and see whether Mr Habanero can get hot under the collar with the colourful crowd he's hanging out with.

By the time next autumn comes around I suspect my little patch will become my Italian salad bar. I've been ordering all sorts of interesting seeds from an Italian herb and vegie seed supplier here in Australia, as well as some new types of rocket recommended by Michelle in her January posting on arugula in her always-interesting blog, From Seed to Table –

The only thing I'm certain about this patch and my garden is general, is that it's constantly changing, which is the way I like things to be.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Beautiful, soggy grevilleas

Rain. Though it's very welcome here, after a very dry January, I'd gladly forgo Sydney's dose of this morning's gentle rain if Huey could somehow send it southwards and put out all those awful bushfires in Victoria. But it doesn't work that way. As the American songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore sings "Rain doesn't fall for the flowers / Rain just falls." And so rain falls here where it's welcome, but hardly a life-saver.

Ever since I discovered the 'Photomerge' button in Photoshop I've become a sucker for taking panorama shots of all 9m x 7.5m of Amateur Land. All you need to do is take three or four shots, click the Photomerge button and then tell it to merge the shots taken, and in 20 seconds you end up with a slightly weirdly-bendy, but still quite impressive, panorama shot. Here's the scene this soggy morning, after a mere 3mm of rain overnight.

This is my native Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream', sagging slightly with the weight of raindrops. Lots of Australians will tell you that our Aussie bushland is at its most gentle and beautiful in the rain. Our bushland areas really can feel a bit scary on hot, dry summer's days, when fires, frisky snakes and constant thirst jangle your inner worry beads. But in the wet, it all seems so gentle and benign. You can really smell the scents of eucalypts and wattles in the wet and the ground feels soft underfoot. Of course a lot of that sensory thrill is lost in a mere garden like mine, but on a wet morning the grevilleas always catch my eye.

The spidery fingers of grevillea leaves hold up each raindrop for inspection.

The multi-coloured blooms of Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' take on a darker, even more pleasing, tone when moist. So far this shrub has grown lots of leaves and produced only a few flowers. I know why. When young it had an iron deficiency, which one friend, an excellent gardener, guessed was probably a nitrogen deficiency. So we tried a nitrogen feed first, and it didn't improve. After we then tried option B, treating it with chelated iron for an iron deficiency, that worked a treat and the leaves greened up in days. But we're paying the price for the nitrogen hit now, with lots of leaf growth and not many flowers. The balance will return in due course, and with that hopefully we'll see more blooms.

Over on the other side of the fence is my star patient, no longer on the intensive care list, my Grevillea 'Superb'. It's blooming beautifully now, but two months ago Pam and I were seriously discussing what kind of plant we'd get as a replacement for it, as it looked terminally ill.

This is what I mean by looking 'terminally ill'. Eek, that's ugly. But this was made to look even uglier as it's taken just after a desperate attempt at pruning, in mid-October. The new leaves which appeared after this pruning came out looking sick, too, and that's when we thought its condition was terminal. And then it occurred to me that the problem could be fungal, and probably underground as well. And so I sprayed it with Anti-Rot, whose main chemical component is phosphorous acid.

Traa daaaa! And this is the star patient this morning, covered in blooms and healthy green leaves. It's had two treatments of Anti-Rot so far, at six week intervals, and this stuff has done the trick magnificently. If you think I'm pleased about this, the local native birds are even more delighted! Grevilleas are laden with nectar and this is the local cafe for a variety of honeyeaters.

Grevilleas are wonderful garden plants. The two varieties I have growing here are modern cultivars not found in our bushland areas, so they are second-generation natives, rather than being truly indigenous plants. The Grevillea 'Superb' is so long-flowering that it's in flower virtually year-round, although it does put on bigger flushes of blooms in autumn and spring, or at least several weeks after being pruned, as is happening now.

The general idea with grevilleas is that you prune them quite often – twice a year, usually after the autumn and spring flushes of blooms subside. This keeps the foliage dense and the flowers more profuse. Pruning consists of cutting back plants by about one-third, all over, but some gardeners cut off more, others less. Doesn't matter, as long as all the old blooms go. Lots of Australians who aren't keen gardeners, but who want a garden of some sort, make the mistake of growing flowering natives such as these grevilleas and then they neglect them entirely after planting. After a good first year or two, their native plants grow sparse, scrappy and untidy, and flowering drops off. They presume that all natives are 'low-maintenance' plants - because that's the common misconception – when in fact they need a fair bit of maintenance and care. And boy, there are a lot of really ugly native gardens out there in suburbia. All they need is regular pruning.

The only maintenance that grevilleas don't need a lot of is feeding. I give them one application of slow-release pellets formulated for Australian natives (ie with a very low phosphorus content). That's all they need. Over-feeding can kill them, as can normal garden fertilisers, and run-off from over-fertilised lawns. So underfeeding is best for all grevilleas.

Oddly enough, grevilleas such as these are a bit out of favour with ecologists, despite being native plants and so attractive to native birds. They're perfectly right in their arguments, too, which go like something like this: "Planting too many nectar-producing plants in suburban areas gives nectar-eating native birds an unfair competitive advantage over the various seed-eating and insect-eating birds. What you should do is also plant native shrubs, perennials and trees which provide a balanced variety of food sources (ie, seed-producing plants and plants which attract insects, such as tea trees.)"

Unfortunately, that then means that you'd need to devote your garden almost entirely to native plants to achieve a truly eco-friendly balance of plant types, and that's something I just don't want to do. I love my food plants far too much to do that. And besides, Australian natives are finicky, difficult plants to grow, especially here in my heavyish, rich clay-loam soil. They generally need lighter, almost sandy, soils to thrive healthily. And so I content myself with growing just a couple of the prettiest grevilleas I can find – and a soggy morning like this one is when they're at their best.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hot colours

Maybe it's the intense, dry summer heat that has brought on the flowering of my zinnias – after all, they are natives of Mexico – but just one little punnet of scrawny seedlings planted on December 7 has turned into this riot of hot colour eight weeks later. I often tend to think of different flower beds as if they're musical bands, and zinnias definitely have a touch of the noisy, brash Mariachi band to them, trumpets and trombones blaring cheerfully in the dusty heat of the village square.

Lunchtime, in the midday sun, on February 7. One punnet, many colours, as promised. As for limiting themselves to 20cm wide and 20cm high as promised on the label, I don't think so.

I find it so hard to believe that this was my potato patch in early December that I plan to do a little blog soon on how this one patch, the sunniest one in my sunny backyard, has gone through such a wide range of uses, and personalities, in one year. Behind the zinnias are the marigolds and the potager patch, where the cool green parsley borders help to preserve some decorum.

Within the zinnia zone, the colours are many, varied and always hot. Reds aplenty.

Pink is definitely not one of my favourite colours, nor is Pam all that fond of it either – she's more of a green girl – but if you're going to be pink you might as well be really pink, like these zinnias, I say.

Orange is one of the more sneered-at garden colours amongst gardening writers, and if you're not an orange fan you can have a good old sneer at my zinnias.

More down the apricot end of the spectrum, these zinnias could almost stand accused of good taste but, being zinnias, that isn't really on the cards.

However, it's not just the zinnias laying on the fiery hues and blazing away in the midday sun. The Jalapeno chillies are chiming in nicely across the path with rapidly ripening reds.

And the marigolds reflect the sunshine with their orange and yellow pompoms. In fact the yellow marigolds reflect the moonlight nicely, too!

Yes, of course, my choice of summer flower colours is deliberately bright and cheerful, and that's because of the quality of the Australian sunlight. It's bright, dazzlingly bright. Several years ago, after spending a year travelling in Europe, the first thing I noticed when I arrived back here in Australia was the light. Always so bright, usually so clear, too. It took me a while to get used to it. Then, several weeks later, I was out driving around the countryside and the incredible beauty of the bushland and the bright Australian sky just hit me with such a powerful force that I saw everything here in a new light. I saw beauty all around me, and it's been that way ever since.

As an example, I just pointed my camera out the window and this is the colour of the sky above. Visitors to Australia often comment on the blueness of the southern sky, and I cannot help but agree with them.

Moving the camera lens around a bit further I caught Sol in all its merciless baking glory (or was it Sol who caught me?). In this kind of glaring heat and light, all subtlety of colour in flowers either burns to a crisp or merely fades from sight.

In summer here in Oz, it's only the eye-achingly bright colours that stand a chance of surviving more than a week or two. At other times of year it's a different story, fortunately – autumn, winter and spring are kinder to plants and people – but right now, in the middle of summer, razzle dazzle rules.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Disgraceful behaviour

Lots of gardeners have one or more little patches in their garden which they 'tut-tut' about as being a bit of a disgrace, something they plan to attend to, where unruly plants have taken over and a bit more order is well overdue. I have one of those, right underneath my lime tree, and as soon as this summer heatwave is over I might even do something about it, probably, perhaps. But right now even the weeds are looking good there, so I'll just blog about them, instead of doing any real work.

Pretty blue, the tradescantia flowers, aren't they? A bright blue that lasts one day. This is the ultimate weed. If just one molecule of tradescantia remains in the ground after weeding the area, it will be back. But it's not the main occupant of my field of disgrace and neglect.

Nor is it this lonely, last survivor of the convolvulus plant that enjoyed just one good spring here two years ago. It's just a remnant now, merely part of the problem, without being the problem.

This is the problem, and it's a native plant. Viola hederacea, the Australian native violet. This is every bit as tenacious and ineradicable as tradescantia, yet hardly anyone describes it as a weed (yet!). I've tried to be rid of it several times, but it always comes back. All it needs is one survivor from a bit of neglectful weeding and it's in with a chance, especially if I get busy at work, go on holidays or merely concentrate on other parts of the garden for too long.

The spread of native violets is green and healthy and lovely and lush, rising not much higher than the book my official garden librarian gnome, Mitchell, is trying to read. Its little white and bluey-purpley flowers are out in bloom almost year-round, too. So why get rid of such a great groundcover? It never knows when or where to stop. It's a compulsive invader, quite a badly behaved garden neighbour in fact. However, for the meantime it's too hot to even think about doing much work in the garden, so I've planted some complementary blues to create the illusion that this disgraceful patch of blue is all part of some intentional design.

Across the pathway, blue alyssum loves the heat and humidity.

A few feet away, so does the blue salvia, soaking up the summer sun.

And in pots nearby, the pinky-blue chive flowers participate in the charade.

It's all a hoax, I'm afraid. One of these days, as soon as the weather cools, I will lift once more my Quixotic 'garden weeder' equipment and tilt once more at these weedy blue windmills. Not sure how much success I'll have, but until this scorching summer is over, the uneasy truce continues.