Saturday, March 28, 2009

Frozen in time

Most gardeners can't resist a peek at someone else's garden, and when that spot is almost always hidden from view, the temptation is just that little bit stronger to check it out. A few doors down the hill in my street, a house is for sale. While I won't be attending the open house inspection this Saturday afternoon (as so many locals invariably do, God bless 'em), I'm more than willing to take the online 'tour' of the property. All I'm interested in is the backyard. And it's marvellous: a snapshot from 1954, frozen in time. It ought to be heritage-listed: Aussie suburbia mid baby-boom, before we discovered gardening. Lots of lawn for the kids to play on. What else do you need?

If you know the artist's work you'll understand my first reaction of 'Jeffrey Smart painting' when I saw this image of tidy, modern minimalism (who said soulless? Nonsense!).
It has instantaneously become my "if I win Lotto" fantasy – I'd buy it. And no, I'm afraid I wouldn't be preserving it for heritage listing. It'd become my gardening blank canvas, which it almost is, already.
But I do love the way this is a time capsule of backyards about 50 years ago. I knew so many like this when I was growing up. The aluminium shed probably was an addition in the 70s or 80s, but most of the other details are authentic, such as:
• The clothes line with its dinky path from the laundry, almost certainly a 50s relic. Back then, all laundries were the last room in the house. Now it's the kitchen which is the last room in the house.
• Almost no usable shade anywhere, apart from inside the house. No wonder our skin cancer rates are so high!
• The 'almost all-lawn' design philosophy (and you wonder why we're good at cricket – every Aussie backyard a breeding ground for the Test team of tomorrow)
• The parsimonious concession from him of: 'OK, you can have one shrub, but hide it behind the shed so it doesn't get in the way of our cricket pitch'
• The outdoor furniture – indestructible wrought iron frame with timber slats bolted on. These immaculate examples probably have been sanded down and repainted every five to 10 years. It doesn't look like this family has ever done much trendy 'outdoor living' so wear and tear on the furniture probably hasn't been too bad.
• The 'cubist' house extension deserves a mention. It is a bit of a beacon of ugliness in the local area. Could become a tropical greenhouse, I guess, if we make it glass all-round?
(• And I cannot help but mention the next-down-the-hill neighbour's satellite dish in the background, which points to the Philippines (or at least a Filipino-friendly satellite). You can almost gauge the ethnicity of residences in my area by the direction in which their satellite dishes point. Portuguese here, Macedonian there, Vietnamese over there, etc etc. They all seem to be saying, from their far-off outpost in the antipodes "hello home, hello home, we can hear you...")

But I digress, back to my 'Lotto Win' fantasy. (If not overcome by guilt pangs of vandalism to a pristine historical relic from the baby-boomer years), the first thing to go would be the huge, ugly aluminium shed (where's a good vaporiser when you need one?). I'd probably install a much smaller one down the side, extending the existing garage. That way, from the back door, you wouldn't see a shed at all, just garden.

Second thing would be the total removal of the lawn. Gone. I know that I'd probably risk being brutally assassinated late one night by the previous owner, unable to cope with my philistinism, but I'll take that risk.

As for the rest of the grand plan, so far it's all just a blank canvas to play with. I'm thinking orchards and proper vegie patches in raised beds, as my little backyard garden of 9m x 7.5m is just a bit too small for me. If I won squillions it would be nice to buy a blank-canvas extra garden nearby and extend my gardening horizons (and by the way, there's no way I'm leaving the action-packed inner-city lifestyle and moving to the country!).

Not sure what I'd do with the house. It's pretty ugly, so I guess I could just knock it down entirely and turn the whole block into a garden... there's an idea!

Friday, March 27, 2009

A bit too hot

Here's one of the silliest things I grow in my kitchen garden – habanero chillies. Why silliest? Well, I don't use them in cooking – they're too hot – and so I just grow them because I like the look of them. I've always been a sucker for apricot coloured things.

A few years ago Habanero chillies were famous for being the world's hottest, rating 10 points out of 10 on the heat scale, but in recent years this crown has been forfeited to various other, infinitely – no, make that insanely – hotter chillies. But the new heat champions are tiny, mean vicious little runts, not remotely as aristocratic in form as a beautiful apricot habanero.

Someone ought to perfect a way of turning habaneros into earrings.

I tried, dutifully, for a couple of years to find a way to enjoy habaneros in my cooking, but to my taste buds they are not only too viciously hot but also somehow sweetish, not all that pleasant as a flavour or a source of heat. I cannot understand those masochistic westerners who get their jollies eating burning hot food every now and then at curry houses, although I do understand how people from South-East Asia and other countries who eat intensely hot food daily can become so accustomed to chillies that they hardly notice the heat. While I love spices and herbs and use them almost daily, I've never been a fan of intense heat in food, and so I prefer to use milder chillies such as Jalapenos (5 on the 10 pt scale) and Serranos (7 on the scale).

A while ago a cookery writer told me about her husband, Asian-born and a lover of chillies. He finds most restaurant food here too bland, so he often brings one or two chillies with him (plus a pen-knife) when he eats out, so he can slice raw chilli over his meal to bring the heat up to an acceptable level. One evening they harvested some home-grown habaneros, and so he took them with him to try them out. Unfortunately for him, the habaneros must have been zingers, and he ended up gulping water, coughing, with his eyes burning brightly, sweat flooding his brow. While suitably appropriate sounds of sympathy and concern emanated from his other dining companions, the glances flashing between them were of mirth.
Beware the pretty habanero. It might be a de-throned prince of the burning fires, but it can still fell the unwary!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Stocking up

Although there's not a lot of work to do here right now in Amateur Land, there's plenty to enjoy, of course. And my favourite harvests, at all times of the year, come from my herb patch. They add so much interest to every meal, and in a small space like mine, herbs offer the best value per square inch of ground. In fact, if I could only grow one class of food plant, it would be herbs. (But thank goodness I don't have to live with that restriction!)

During the week I made some more stocks for our future use, and herbs are such an important part of making flavoured water I thought I'd devote my energies to them this time round. In fact, I can't help but start by saying that I think stock-making is made far, far too difficult by too many cookery books and experts, and a much simpler approach works just fine. Ignore the experts and make your own flavoured water, I say!

Here are some of my favourite water-flavourers: onions, eschallots, parsley, thyme, bay leaves.

Unless you want a seriously large tree in your backyard, grow your bay tree in a pot. Apart from attack by scale insect in winter (oil sprays control them, anyway) these plants are tough as teak in the right climate. Nice leaves, eh?

Ahhhh, parsley. Pictured here are both curly and flat-leaf types, and the main trick I've found with these excellent herbs is to grow them from seed. Here in Sydney they take about two to three weeks to germinate from seed, but once underway they do well. They're a bit wilty and temperamental when grown from seedlings, I've found, especially if it's remotely warm and/or dry.

This is close to my favourite plant, I use it so much in cooking. Thyme. Good old common thyme, none of that fancy lemon thyme or those other pretentious types. Give me proletarian thyme, any time. Only one plant is needed, so don't bother with sowing seed. Just grow it from a bought seedling, or cuttings. Nice little groundcover, too – loves the hot, dry weather.

Confession time: I have high blood pressure! My doctor has given me the assignment of getting it under control (bit of a sad family history of it, I'm afraid). While prescription drugs help, the better option is weight loss, exercise and improving my diet (not in deliciousness or quality, but in those obscure, unappealing nutritionist-driven measures of calories, sodium, fat, etc). And one issue I've homed in on is my salt intake. See the label above, for example, for the packaged Campbell's chicken stock in our pantry: 1300mg of sodium (ie, salt) in one 375ml pack! My daily max for sodium should be just a bit over 2000mg, so making my own low-salt stocks suddenly became a mission, not an option.

All my local supermarkets sell 'soup packs' of vegies, plastic-wrapped trays containing a few carrots, celery sticks, a swede or turnip, a potato, an onion, and several sprigs of parsley. All for a bit over two dollars. I buy and use them regularly when it's stock-making time. Here they are after my latest effort, making vegetable stock, cooked for two hours with the addition of plenty of parsley, thyme and bay leaves, plus a few tomatoes.

Carrots always win on the colour stakes, unless beetroot is around, but all the flavours are there. I like to think of the result as nicely flavoured water. This little batch isn't destined to make a soup. I'll use it to flavour vegetables or rice, in small batches.

Can't resist labelling things destined for the freezer. Here's that bowl of vegie stock measured out into 1 cup (250ml) lots, ready for freezing.

Already in the freezer, 1-cup (250ml) chicken stocks. As I don't add any salt to my home-made stocks I presume they have very little salt, apart from the naturally occurring salts in the ingredients, which aren't that many. I made this batch of chicken stocks in about 25 minutes, using just a couple of ingredients. They taste great, smell great while I'm making them, and they prove to me that making your own little quick and easy batches of stock is something worth doing.

And so, beyond the photos, a couple of recipes I use for making stocks, plus a couple of recipes using stocks. First of all, my 25-minute chicken stock.

Easy chicken stock
1. Some offcuts of chicken – eg, chicken wing tips, or backbones, or odd bits of chicken meat, with the fat trimmed off. The last batch of offcuts came about when I removed the backbone from a chicken to grill it 'spatchcock-style' (so beloved of the Portuguese), laid out flat on a grill tray. I added the wing tips and had plenty of chickeny bits to work with, especially the flavour-laden bones
2. One onion, chopped (or 2 eschallots, chopped)
3. Herbs (4 sprigs of thyme, 2 sprigs parsley, a few bay leaves)
4. 500ml-750ml water (about a pint)
5. 3-4 whole peppercorns

Method: whack everything in a saucepan, bring to the boil, simmer 20 minutes. You'll have some deliciously flavoured water, for future use in cooking (see recipe ideas below).

Easy vegetable stock
1. Bunch of vegetables, chopped: ideally, 1 onion, 2 celery sticks, 2 carrots, plus root vegies such as 1 potato and 1 turnip/or 1 swede (rutabaga), plus 2 tomatoes, chopped
2. Bunch of herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaves)
3. Water (not too much, one to two pints, or 500ml to 1 litre)

Method: whack it all in a saucepan, bring to the boil, cover and simmer 2 hours over low heat. Strain liquid, turn vegies into soup thinned out with some of the stock, use the rest of the liquid as stock.

Easy prawn (shrimp) stock
1 bunch prawn shells (after peeling)
1 slice lemon peel and/or some lemon leaves
1 or 2 whole chillies
2-3 parsley and/or mint sprigs
500ml (1 pint) water

I make this stock when I'm cooking prawns (shrimps) for something else. After peeling the prawns, I wash the shells thoroughly, then make the stock.
To make the stock, I toss the shells into a saucepan (no oil needed) over medium heat, and the shells will soon turn pink in their own attached water. Stir shells until all are pink (only takes a few minutes). Then add the other ingredients, bring the water to the boil and let it cook for about 20 minutes.
You can use this prawn stock to make Asian-style soups such as the classic Thai Tom Yum Soup, but it also works really, really well with any seafood risotto, for example.

With all these stocks, you'll end up with very nicely flavoured water for not a lot of effort, and with a host of applications in cooking that you can file under 'secret ingredients'. I package up my stocks into 250ml (1-cup) plastic containers to freeze, which I then use in cooking.

Here's just a couple of uses I make for stocks in cooking.

Rice cooked in stock and spices

1 1/4 cups rice
1 tablespoon ghee or oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
pinch ground cloves
pinch ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups stock

Wash the rice well then drain.
Heat the oil in a saucepan then add the onion and cook 4-6 minutes until soft, then add garlic and cook 1 minute more, then add the rice and turn over in the oil and onion-garlic mix for 1 minute until well coated.
Add the stock and spices, stir well, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down as low as possible, cover with a tight lid and leave it to steam on super-low heat for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir with a fork, put the lid back on and leave it a few minutes more. Serve as a side dish with something spicy.
Variations: you can add a bit of lemon juice for a sharp flavour that goes well with seafood and chicken, and tossing in some peas or carrots diced to pea-size when you add the rice works well and fills out the meal, too.

Potatoes, carrots, greens, herbs and stock

Chop a small onion or eschallot and fry in hardly any olive oil, and when golden, add 1 chopped clove garlic and fry one minute more. Add 2 potatoes diced into 1-inch cubes, plus one or two carrots cut into half-inch dice and stir-fry for 3 or 4 minutes, until warmed through. Now add 1 cup stock plus the leaves from 2-3 sprigs of thyme and 2 sprigs of parsley, chopped, and bring to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, until the vegies are almost tender.
Then add at least 1 cup of green vegies of your choice (I prefer broad beans, shelled, then peeled again down to the inner bean, but peas are just fine, so too beans cut into smaller pieces). Just 3-4 minutes more cooking should do for a nice side dish.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Asleep at the wheel

Here in the inner-city, where jets roar overhead far too often, trucks thunder by busily and young men suffering repeated hormone surges just make loud mechanical noises for the sheer, irritating hell of it late into the night, I could never really say things are quiet around here. But they are.

Out in Amateur Land that is – our garden – it's so quiet you can hear the lettuce growing. Everything else seems in a state of near suspended animation. There's not a lot to do, other than enjoy the flowers and the pretty view. Friends often laugh that I'm an over-enthusiastic glutton for punishment when it comes to both cooking and gardening, but even I have my lazy limits. With nothing much to do in the garden right now, I'm sensibly electing to do very little out there, too, other than the morning rounds of watering. Apart from that, this blog is mostly about nothing.

Shhh! Everything's sleeping right now. Nodding heads dozing off. Even the lizards are feeling lazy.

Over in the hospital ward the sick grevillea has been given its discharge papers, although the steady stream of visiting honeyeaters have attested to its good health for weeks now.

Down in the creche the baby curry tree seeds have produced bambinos. The healthiest of these three will go to a friend's new garden, which is temptingly bare, bereft of anything edible, flowering or interesting. It's just lawn at the moment, but I have a cunning plan for their garden, all of which will come from seeds and cuttings.

And across the path, in the former alyssum patch, neatly modest rows of spinach and radicchio, plus a lolly scramble of olive-leaf rocket seeds (a new variety I'm testing out) have all got off to a good start. But apart from that nothing much is happening, nothing much at all.

There's a lovely segment on a radio show here in Sydney which is called 'Nothing'. It's on for half an hour or so every week, and in it, you can call up and talk about nothing at all if you like, because the segment is about nothing. Every now and then they broadcast a pregnant pause because the announcer has nothing to say, but then someone ruins it all by calling in and raising a bit of a nothing topic. I don't listen to it all the time, but it's kind of comforting to know that it exists, purely as an antidote to all the other pap on the airwaves.

Oddly enough, in the time it's taken me to write this little post about nothing much at all, it has occurred to me that I could do a post fairly soon about organic gardening ideas that have been milling about on the crowded platform of my mind, and I could also do a little blog soon about all the interesting spider webs which have sprung up here recently. And as I write this blog I am cooking up another batch of home-made vegetable stock in my kitchen. In fact I've got a bee in my bonnet about making stocks lately, too. So even though there's nothing much happening in the garden, I have resolved to launch several missiles of packaged nothingness into the blogosphere over the next few days. Maybe after that I might have some gardening events to blog about, but then again, maybe not.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stormy intervals

I love a good storm, but then again that's because I don't live in Tornado Alley in America's midwest, or in the Caribbean, or in tropical Australia, where hurricanes put another factor of 10 on top of what I consider to be a good storm. I guess people in those parts of the world could do without pop-gun storm-lovers like me. But that doesn't stop me liking a good, quick little Sydney storm. We had one pass through late yesterday, and it gave the garden a lovely, deep drink without doing a lot of damage.

While we can cop storms here from all sorts of directions, the south-west is the most reliable point of entry, and here's our little storm approaching late in the afternoon.

I'm a weather radar addict when storms approach. My part of the world is closest to the area marked Sydney Ap (airport) on the mid-section of coast. The yellow bit in the radar image contains the heaviest rain – and all the lightning – and it passed straight overhead.

Only minutes away now and the dark cloudy bits look perfectly primed for a large, judgmental hand to reach down and smite someone. Alas, nothing of the sort happened and instead large blobs of water splattered down slowly, the advanced guard of the assault suggesting that it'd be a great idea for all boys with cameras to go inside now.

The front path becomes shiny, the thirsty hedges say 'thanks' for the drink and the wash-down, and moments later the real fun begins.

Within 30 seconds the rain changes from blobs to streams to grey torrents; gutters become rivers and strong trees sag under the weight of water.

Out the back of the house the pergola springs a leak where it attaches to the house and water starts streaming down the glass blocks that form part of our back wall. "Will you please stop taking photos and help mop up the water?" says someone far more sensible than me, as she lays towels against the back door, to stop the seepage getting in. You always know when it's really raining hard here, our leaky pergola lets us know.

Two really close lightning strikes this time round, one just across the road. What a terrifying, loud, violent sound close lightning is. Yet, 20 minutes later and it's all over. The street tree glistens after its wash and picks it head up, shaking its leaves free of water in the breezes, just like a wet dog.

The only 'damage' to speak of is pair of the potted, scented-leaf pelargoniums, which were due for a trim tomorrow anyway, as they've grown too lush and a bit too big for their pots. The intensity of the rain and the weight of the wet foliage has bent them over. A bit of remedial trimming, and maybe a bit of tying a staking behind the scenes, should attend to their immediate needs.

Just a bit under one inch (25mm) of rain in 20 minutes is the harvest, a wonderful gift for the garden. March is meant to be our wettest month, with 131mm of rain on average, and so far we've had just 30mm of rain by the 14th.( A second storm later last night added another 15mm of rain, so the soil is much happier now.)

That was just a playful, helpful little 20-minute storm. I can't imagine what a hurricane would be like. I hope I never experience one, quite frankly. Nor a tornado. But as for our late-summer/early autumn temperate storms, they're common enough, and occasionally quite deadly if you're in the path of a falling tree, or taking shelter under one when lightning strikes (and these things do happen) but most of the time they're just a bath for the garden and a reminder that nature, in its fury, is the most powerful thing on Earth.

The two of us

With a max of around 29°C and the humidity meter set to 'muggy', only a foolish boy with a whole weekend ahead of him would get out the ladder and clippers today, to tame the espaliered lime, some wayward hedges and an olive tree with pretensions to grandeur. These jobs can wait till tomorrow, and in the meantime I can contemplate why some pairs of plants can be so different, and others so beautifully synchronised, and why I find all this so handy as a gardener.

This is just another excuse to play with Photoshop, a panorama of Amateur Land taken about half an hour ago. At the far right and far left of the panorama are my first "two of us" subjects, my cumquats. In between is a garden that right now needs little work.

My friend Michelle's cumquat on the left, mine is on the right. I'm baby-sitting Michelle's plant while she explores the Australian Outback for a year or so, from her base in Birdsville (her blog is in my blog links section). Her cumquat is a perfectly healthy little thing with vivid, dark green leaves. It flowers earlier than my plant, sets fruit earlier and is doing well, covered in baby fruits. But it hasn't grown all that much as a tree. My tree, by comparison, is growing like mad, and is also flowering well and covered in fruits now, and it's the younger of the two plants by about 12 months.

Can't be sure but I think these are fruits on Michelle's plant. Her plant has been in my care for about 12 months now and has received identical food, water, fertiliser as the other one. The only possible differences to explain the lack of growth are:
1. Michelle's plant was traumatised big-time by a 41°C summer scorcher on New Year's Day in 2007. My plant didn't exist at that time, I bought and planted mine later that year.
2. Michelle's plant is in a plastic pot, and mine is in a glazed ceramic pot.
And that's about it. Maybe the potting mixes are different, but they both drain well and I don't think they're a factor, as potting mixes lose fertility fairly fast, so they're both dependent entirely on the food I give them (which comes in a steady flow of light feeds every six weeks).
My guess is that the stout, healthy little plant is a tough little trauma victim which is soldiering on wonderfully, but maybe its root system is still regrowing and things are still are not all that good below-ground. There's a product sold here called Seasol, which is an organic, seaweed-based liquid that is marketed as a "root growth promoter" and "soil conditioner", rather than a fertiliser, so I've resolved to give the trauma victim a few fortnightly doses of magic elixir and see how it shapes up over the next few months. If that doesn't work, I'll repot it in late winter and see if fresh potting mix helps. That's all I can think of.

"Two of us" case number 2, the sedums. (Maybe I should give this one a Robert Ludlum style title such as "The Sedum Conundrum" – maybe not...) Two cuttings brought home from a visit to a gardener-pal in southern Australia. Both are sedums, both thriving in my friend Amanda's garden down south. On the left is Sedum 'Autumn Joy' and on the right, the plant I now call Sedumn 'No Joy'. Identical spots, identical potting mix, identical care. The one on the right is in a permanent sulk, its cousin on the left, delirious with joy.

These flower buds of 'Autumn Joy' start out light pink then darken as they open, the combination of blooms and foliage as fresh as happy teenagers having fun at the beach.

This one is doing the equivalent of sitting locked in its room listening to loud heavy metal music. Not happy. With all potted plants, my motto is "if not performing, repot!" And so that's all I can think of at this stage.

I have a soundtrack in mind for my final little "two of us" pairing – Bryan Ferry and "Let's Stick Together", although the lyric would have to alter to "let's bloom together, come on come on, let's bloom together". In one part of the garden, a potted crassula (which my Googling thinks is called "Baby's necklace", but which I like to think of as "Pagoda") has decided to flower. These are the buds, and the blooms themselves will be small, with reddish centres, I expect. (The green leaves? The oregano which never knows when it's not welcome).

Brought home from a local nursery only a couple of months ago, this had the very unhelpful label of "succulent" on it (as so many succulents do, unfortunately), but I am sure it's a crassula, too. To confirm my suspicions, the moment Crassula 'Pagoda' burst into bloom, so did this little fellow. There must be a crassula checklist buried in their DNA: temperatures down? Check. Daylight length shortening? Check. Bit of rain lately? Check. OK, Crassulas, let's do it!

I guess all I'm trying to say that it's always handy to have more than one of any plant in your garden, just so you have some reference point for its health, its progress and overall happiness. Once the crassulas finish flowering I'm thinking of potting them up into larger pots and putting them together, for company. I'll repot the 'No Joy' sedum and see what happens, and I'll give Michelle's cumquat a bit more specialised care before repotting. Without the comparison plants, I might have done nothing much more with any of them.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Thank God that's over

There's a consensus out in my backyard, and it's this: "Thank God summer is over". If you're like me and you're in the habit of talking to your plants, and also listening to what they've got to say, you can glean quite a bit from plants' opinions. They mostly talk about the weather, of course, but I never tire of that topic, so we get on just fine. And right now they're full of the excitement of autumn, probably the nicest time of year to be in Sydney, no matter whether you're a plant or just their humble servant, the gardener.

Whoever named this Sedum 'Autumn Joy' was right on the money. A joyful scene this morning. This plant was given to me as a cutting two years ago by a friend, Amanda, who lives in Kyneton, Vic. Though Amanda's climate is much tougher than mine – cooler in winter and often hotter and drier in summer – this hardy succulent has thrived here in Sydney.

Parts of the backyard are a sea of colour right now. Salvias in the foreground, a swarm of zinnias in the middle, and helmet-headed marigolds soldiering on in the background.

Blue salvias have become a summer/autumn tradition in our backyard, doing their brilliant best for the last few years in succession. I prefer their colour on cloudy days, actually, and caught in the first low rays of the direct morning sun the vivid blue is almost too much, but not quite.

In the middle of the zinnia patch, which has grown much taller than the seedling label promised, a habanero chilli is struggling to get through its duties of flowering and setting fruit, but it's getting the job done, despite the press of bodies.

This is what I mean by the "press of bodies". See the green patch in the middle where there are no zinnia flowers? That's the habanero bush. My original vision was orange habaneros overlooking a low sea of zinnias, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. However I did get half of the original notion – a Mexican-style fiesta of colour from these Mexican natives – Viva!

Everything is growing rapidly now, such as this flush of new growth on the potted cumquat (which is also covered in developing small green fruits). The slightly cooler autumn weather is what all sorts of plants have been waiting for. Instead of daily maximums in the 30s, we're down to the mid 20s now, some truly lovely days just to be outside. The evenings are cooler, and though the days are slowly shortening, the earth is still very warm from the summer, and it won't be until late May before growth slows down for a few months of what we quaintly call 'winter' here.

The curry tree seedlings which had grown from seed that had fallen around the base of the tree, and which I potted up last weekend, have all come through, even the bigger ones. It's the kind autumn weather which gets the credit for the 100% success rate.

Like the cumquats, the lemon tree is putting on a lot of growth now. Here in Australia the traditional citrus-feeding times are late summer (February) and late winter (August). This youngster was fed about three weeks ago with Dynamic Lifter (pelletised chicken manure).

All the herbs are much happier in the autumn weather, but I thought I'd show just a couple here. Pictured above is the chervil, which was going so badly in midsummer that I thought about tossing it out several times and sowing new seed in autumn. No need, without any trimming and just steady watering, it has responded to the drop in the heat beautifully. This herb has a wonderful flavour that I love with vegetables in particular. Pam's using it really well in her cooking lately, it's been a treat.

Another summer sufferer which has put on a lovely green flush in the last couple of weeks, French tarragon is what Gourmet God invented moments after he invented the chicken.

The fourth and last crop of basil for the season is underway. Ever since I started growing basil as a crop and not a herb, we've got on much better. Basil goes to seed quickly in our climate, and it's useless trying to trim off the flowers and slow down its rush to reproduction, so the trick is, when I see the seed heads forming, I reach for the seed packet and sow another small batch of seeds in a punnet. A few weeks later when the seedlings are up and growing well, the old plants can be harvested and turned into pesto or whatever, and the new seedlings take their place.

However, it's not just the herbs and citrus which are enjoying the sublime autumn weather. Lots of plants have burst into flower. Pictured above, the Gardenia radicans is having its autumn flush, which this year is almost as good as the main spring flush.

In the area which I call 'Succulent City' all sorts of plants are blooming now. This is a curly-leaved Echeveria doing its thing.

This hanging basket of pelargoniums keeps on getting bashed up by strong winds, in which the plant loses about two-thirds of its foliage and looks to be a goner for a couple of weeks. Each time it says "I'll show you" and just bounces back with more foliage and flowers. "Take that, you rotten sou-wester!"

As I started this blog with an 'Autumn Joy' of a sedum it's only appropriate to finish it off with one of my personal joys of autumn, a new crop of limes from the espaliered lime tree.
Last night I cooked some spatchcocks (baby chickens, poussins, whatever you call little 500g chickens in your part of the world) which I marinated for a few hours in a mixture of olive oil, freshly squeezed lime juice, garlic, chopped chillies and garlic, and fresh oregano leaves, prior to grilling them (I cut out the backbone so the birds are flattened out for cooking).

And for cool soft drinks right now I'm cutting a segment from a lime and giving it a good squeeze as I toss it into a tall glass along with some ice cubes, prior to pouring iced mineral water over that. Without a doubt I'll be cooking a lime tart for dessert soon, and my Asian-style salad dressings will be tangier than ever, too!

While Sydney has nothing like four real seasons – we're far too warm and evergreen for that – the one which we like to call 'autumn' here is the favourite for a lot of people, me included. It may be partly due to the sense of relief that another blazing hot summer is over, but a nice autumn day here in Sydney is Goldilocks weather. Not too hot, not too cool. Just right. No wonder my plants are talking about nothing but the weather right now!