Saturday, April 18, 2009

Friendly natives

After enjoying the challenge of the desert island plants a month or two ago, I've found a new blogger's photo challenge involving native plants in our gardens. I came across the challenge at several other blogs, in my case Phillip Oliver's Dirt Therapy blog and Grace Peterson's blog although I believe the people responsible for starting the whole thing can be found at Gardening Gone Wild.

It's a simple thing: just send them a photo of a plant native to your area, growing in your garden. Pictured below is the one I sent, but I'm a bit of a rule-bender (as I was with the desert island plants 'rules' too). So here's my photo of three of the Australian natives growing in my Australian garden, and below that several more detail shots for good measure.

Here they are: in the left foreground, my gum tree, Eucalyptus leucoxylon 'Rosea'. Spilling over the fence in the middle ground is a just barely prostrate form of the Cootamundra wattle, Acacia baileyana, and in the background is a native without a common name, Correa alba. They're all worth a closer look, so I thought I'd post a couple of close-ups as well.

The Acacia baileyana in the foreground has wonderful blue-grey foliage. It's meant to be a prostrate groundcover but in its tightly confined space it rears up about a metre off the ground in places. The silver-leafed correa behind is due for yet another trim. I keep it clipped into a dome shape most of the time, but as it's flowering now I'll wait until that's over before its next trim.

As well as being a lovely colour the foliage of the Cootamundra wattle is delicately ferny. While it is producing some tiny flower buds now, it won't unleash its pretty little yellow pompom blooms until later, around June or July.

The flowers of the Correa alba are modest at best and not the reason I grow this plant. Well, to tell the truth, the reason I grow this plant is that Pam chose it, and a very, very lovely choice it has proven to be, a beautiful foliage plant. And our neighbour's tabby cat loves sleeping under it, too!

Our street tree, the Eucalyptus, has just started blooming this week. It's late this year, as it usually starts in early April. It will stay covered in blooms till September at least, and all sorts of native nectar-eating birds will be squabbling for territory in its branches for all that time, notably the wattlebirds, the New Holland honeyeaters and the rainbow lorikeets.

The gum tree's flower buds are full of colour now and very decorative in their own right.

This photo shows nicely how the flower buds open. The little conical cap on the underside of the bud loosens under the pressure within the bud, then pops off suddenly, allowing the pink tutu of blooms to pirouette across the stage. Traa daaaa!

But to finish this little photo blog I thought I'd toss in a bonus garden native photo. Pictured above is my fully-recovered Grevillea 'Superb' in my backyard, after its brush with death last December. But thanks to the application of a spray which killed off the fungal disease which was causing its woes, it's happier and more floriferous than ever. (For Australian readers, the product is Yates Anti-Rot, which is made from phosphorous acid, and it certainly was a Christmas miracle worker for this grevillea).

Stop press – someone at the door! It's Greek Easter this weekend, and my lovely neighbour Katarina knocked on my door a few minutes ago, wishing Pam and me a very happy Easter, and bearing an Easter gift of traditional Greek cakes, pastries and dyed eggs. So happy Greek Easter, everyone!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Back in season, hooray!

One thing that is sadly disappearing from our shops is any sense of the passing of the seasons. These days we can buy strawberries, avocados, mangoes and all sorts of fruit and vegies at silly times of year when they never used to be available. With our sybaritic reluctance to 'do without' for even a few months I think we've lost some of the thrill and the appreciation of discovering that a favourite fruit is back in season. Call me perverse, but I think occasionally doing without is a worthwhile slice of humble pie.

Fortunately, some of the old-fashioned pleasure of enjoying fruit only when it's in season persists. Here in Sydney, for example, the fresh fig season, which is a late summer and early autumn thing here, is just starting to wind down after a deliciously squishy peak a few weeks ago. We won't see any more figs until next year, and so we shouldn't. It would spoil our delight at disovering that 'the figs are back' next summer. In the place of the figs it's now the quinces' turn to have their few months of glory. Hooray! Here are some quinces I slowly poached this afternoon. Lovely colour, wonderful fragrance, deeply complex flavour.

Changing colour from yellowy-white when raw to glowing-coal red when cooked, quinces set themselves apart from other fruit on colour alone. It's a little miracle.

Though Autumn is quince harvest time here in Australia, the best I can do is buy them, not harvest them, alas. Quinces (Cydonia oblonga) are a Mediterranean climate plant, preferring cool, wet winters and warm to hot, dry summers. That's not Sydney (our summers are far too humid), although they are classed as 'worth a try' here, and some gardeners here do manage to grow them. However, the killer for me is that I don't have space to grow a quince tree. I'd have to chop down one of my olive trees to make room, as a quince tree will reach 5-8 metres tall when mature. Pictured above are some quinces I bought late in the season last year, to make some quince jelly (a photo of which appears later on).

Here's one of the quinces I bought today. I searched through the selection on sale at my local greengrocer – Banana Joe's – to find one with the most prominent 'bloom' on its skin, just for this photo. Like a dusty book neglected on a shelf for too many years, quinces can acquire a downy, brown fuzzy-coating that's called a bloom. This fur rubs or washes off easily enough and does no harm. (And if you're wondering where I got the techno-green background from, that's my snazzy new green plastic chopping board.)

Couldn't resist tossing in another close-up of the furry bloom, which makes shoppers not familiar with quinces steer clear of them. The youngster working at the checkout at Banana Joe's, who is more comfy with apples, oranges and potatoes, looks at my bag of quinces, then looks at me, then looks again at the quinces, none the wiser. "They're quinces" I say, ending the mystery. And the old Greek lady behind me in the queue chimes in with "very nice, baked, long time, very good."

When you cut open quinces the flesh usually starts to brown within seconds. Rubbing the cut surface with lemon juice only delays the inevitable, and dropping them into acidulated water (ie, lemon juice and water) is of similar marginal help. As quinces change from yellowy-white to rich red as they cook, a bit of browning during their preparation doesn't matter in the end. Preparing them is rather like cutting up an apple, removing the woody core and seeds, plus peeling the skin, which is thicker than apple skin.

Quinces are wincingly bitter eaten raw, and so everyone cooks them. They can be baked, poached or cooked in various other ways (eg, they're nice included in a pork roast), but what I like to do is slowly poach them in the oven and then have the poached fruit for breakfast, combined with yoghurt or cereal or whatever takes our fancy. They're not bad as a simple dessert, served with cream or yoghurt mixed with honey. As you can see at the back of the pot, there's a whole cinnamon stick for flavour. Other than that there's just sugar and water, and quinces.

It takes around three to four hours for the quinces to change colour like this. After removing the cores and seeds from the fruit, I cut them into chunks, then add them to a wide, shallow, lidded casserole. Then I sprinkle over sugar (around one tablespoon per quince, so I added two here, for the two quinces). I add water so it comes about halfway up the depth of the fruit. Toss in the whole cinnamon stick, pop on the lid then bake them slowly, at about 110-120°C, for 3-4 hours. It's a good idea to check them at the 2-hour and 3-hour marks, to check that there's enough liquid there (add a splash of boiling water if there's not). And it's easy to tell when they're done, as the colour will be like this, the liquid will be reduced and the fragrance will be wafting through the house.

As mentioned earlier some of the quince photos came from late last year, when I had a go at making quince jelly. This is lovely on toast, with a really beautiful, quite delicate flavour that's remarkably different from the earthier flavour of the poached quinces.

Lots of people, including me, love eating quince paste with cheese platters but I haven't had a go at making my own quince paste yet. However, as the quince season is just starting I'm sure I'll be having a go at learning that skill the moment a thoroughly wet winter weekend is forecast.

But before I sign off, I thought I'd provide a few links to food-loving blog readers in search of some interesting food blogs – you can never find too many interesting blogs, I say – including some great food writing you may not have come across before.

First up, my old pal, Fenella, emailed to let me know that her wonderful article – 'Voyage Round my Kitchen', which first appeared in the magazine 'The Good Weekend' (the colour supplement with Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, for which she is their best feature writer, in my humble opinion) has been put up on a blog run by a friend of hers, novelist Charlotte Wood. I am quite certain that the fact Fenella mentions me kindly in her article has absolutely no influence on my judgement that this is a wonderfully well-written, witty and insightful piece about food, cooks, cooking, friends, marriages, drudgery (that's where I come in), and lots more.

Fenella's article, which appears on Charlotte's blog, is here.
And Charlotte's blog itself, called How to Shuck an Oyster, is here.

Another food blog I have been enjoying lately is called Not Quite Nigella, and you can find it here. While she travels here and there, it's essentially Sydney-based and very well organised and entertaining.

Finally, another rich treasure trove of style, food, photos and creativity is Simon Leong's blog, which you can find here. He's a Sydney-based designer and his love for food is well worth checking out.

Extra text, added on June 19, 2009

A Sydney reader, Kyle, asked for the Quince Jelly recipe in her comments, and here it is, Kyle. Quince jelly is yummy on toast but it's also well worth experimenting with it, stirring a dollop into sauces/gravies for things such as roast pork, turkey or chicken.

Quince Jelly

Quinces (preferably white-fleshed ones, the older they get the more yellow the flesh and the lower the pectin level in the fruit)
Juice of 1 lemon
Caster sugar

Peel the quinces and cut into chunks, put into a stainless steel (ie, non-reactive, not aluminium) saucepan, just barely cover the fruit with water, adding in the lemon juice, too.

Bring to a boil then simmer for one and a quarter hours, then strain the liquid from the fruit overnight. To strain, set up fruit in a colander over a bowl, and cover fruit with a clean cloth (see tips, below).

The next day, discard the fruit and measure the strained liquid and add an equal quantity of caster sugar. Bring sugar and liquid slowly to the boil in a non-reactive saucepan, stirring once or twice until the sugar has dissolved. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface as it comes to the boil. Once bubbling, increase heat and boil rapidly for about 10 minutes then test that it has set.

Testing for setting: place an entrĂ©e plate into the fridge or freezer to make it very cold. Then, to test for setting, place a spoonful of liquid on the plate. Let it sit there a few seconds and push your finger through the middle of the blob of liquid. If the liquid separates into two blobs, and remains in two distinct halves, it has set. If it’s still liquid (and the blobs join together during the test) keep on boiling the mix, and test again 5 or so minutes later. Depending on how much pectin is in the fruit, it could take a while for it to reach setting point.

Once the jelly is set, pour into sterilised jars and seal.

1. Don’t cook the quinces for too long, as this destroys the natural pectin in the fruit, which is needed for setting jellies and jams.
2. When straining fruit overnight, never press down on the fruit to extract more juice. Just let it drain naturally, giving it plenty of time to drain. If you press down on the fruit there’s a danger the jelly will turn cloudy, and a good quince jelly should be beautifully red and clear. If you don’t have a clean cloth to cover the fruit, use a large plate, but don’t let the plate press down on the fruit itself.

This recipe borrows heavily from Stephanie Alexander’s ‘The Cook’s Companion’ but she uses Seville Oranges in her recipe, and I’m sure that would be lovely. The other part of this recipe (the lemon juice and some of the method) comes from one of my mum’s best old cookbooks ‘Australian Cookery of Today’, published in the 1940s.

A snippet on chives, and eggs

I love all the happy little rituals of domestic life. In our house, for example, on Sunday morning I'm usually cooking eggs. I do them all sorts of ways – soft-boiled and poached are pretty popular, but scrambled eggs on toast are always a treat, invariably flavoured with a goodly handful of freshly snipped chives from the garden. As I'm in the middle of one of my regular chive-trimming exercises I thought I'd post a few snippets and snaps on this wonderful little oniony herb.

Chives in bloom provide lots of little cool pinky-blue puffs of colour in the garden. This photo was taken last spring, when they tend to flower best, but new flower buds are forming on one of my plants now, in autumn.

Like this one.

I've tried growing chives in the ground but I prefer pots. And I always have at least two pots growing, as I find from time to time that the pots become a bit tangled and messy, and a radical haircut is the best treatment for that. So, while one pot is growing a new hairdo, the other supplies all the flavour we need.

Speaking of other pots, here it is. Nice hairdo, eh? Very Rock Star. However, more by accident than design I have a third pot of chives here, and I guiltily admit to almost forgetting about it entirely, as it was out of sight, swamped by a carnival of zinnias. Once that colourful festival of flowers was over last weekend and the third chives pot was exposed to the full glare of day, it looked a mess, a tangle-haired party animal found in the gutter the morning after. And so it got the treatment on Saturday – full crew-cut down to pot-rim level, followed by a liqud feed of a product which is marketed as 'liquid blood and bone'.

By Sunday afternoon, a lttle more than 24 hours later, the growth spurt was amazing. You can see by the tufts of moss on the potting mix how dire its growing conditions had become. Shame on me!

This morning, Thursday, and the recovery is well underway, even if it does look a little startled at its own rate of growth. All my chives pots get the crew-cut treatment from time to time (as do my two mint plants, which I've blogged about previously here) and it works wonders. That's always the way with herbs. If in doubt or if looking crook, give them a trim.

Having started this blog talking about cooking eggs on quiet Sunday mornings, I thought I'd finish off on the same topic. I don't really think anyone would be interested in how I cook scrambled eggs, other than to say that a handful of freshly snipped chives is a wonderful addition, just before serving on toast.

But I do think it's worthwhile sharing a little egg-poaching discovery that we've made. I know all about the traditional way of poaching eggs in boiling water, but I've always found it a hit-and-miss bore to try to poach four of them that way simultaneously on a lazy Sunday morning, while I'm reading the papers and listening to some music. So, I've always been a sucker for an egg-poacher. We've tried a couple of different products, none which were very good, some terrible. And then I came across these little silicon cups, called Poach Pods, which float serenely on a simmering lake of water (although, unlike the photo below, they work better with a lid on the pan). Pam spotted them in a Red Cross catalogue last year, and they have worked beautifully since day one. And they're the easiest to clean afterwards too. Nothing comes near them. And their website is pretty cool, too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Being eco-friendly

One thing I will cheerfully admit to is being thrilled every time I get a comment on my blog. This is no doubt sustained by the relative paucity of comments I get, of course, so every little bit of encouragement/ feedback/ criticism flung my way is appreciated.

Yesterday, blogger Kenneth Moore, of Indoor Gardener, left a comment, inviting me to participate in a thing called a meme. As far as I can gather, a meme is a bit like a chain letter, but classier and much more internetty. Kenneth's meme is about Earth Month, and the topic is "five things I can do to help the environment". The rules of the meme involve doing a post on this topic, then inviting five other bloggers to do so. And so the meme grows. Apparently the people responsible for starting all this meme-ing are here.

This long introduction is merely an excuse to buy time, trying to decide whether I'll participate or not! I used to cheerfully tear up and throw away all chain letters I received as a child, thinking of my letterbox as the Aussie Black Hole of chain letters. And I didn't end up with a single spot of plague, pestilence or even mere bad luck as payback for my churlishness. However, as this meme is in a good cause I have decided to compromise and cooperate partially. I'll post something on the topic, and in so doing, publicise the meme, but I'm afraid I have no intention of inflicting a chain letter/meme on anyone else. Just cannot bring myself to do that, after a lifetime of cheerful, churlish chain letter burning!

And so begins my uncooperative contribution: "Five things I actually do to help the environment".

1. Make compost and garden as organically as I possibly can.
Pictured above is the last batch of compost I made, and another of the same size is about to make its way onto a friend's garden. I blogged on at length about my love of composting here. All I can say is that if you tried composting and found it all a bit tiresome and/or difficult, persist and try again. As for gardening organically, it's simple: use manures and compost as your fertilisers, and cut out the toxic sprays. There are organic sprays available, and they work if you acknowledge that they require more effort and persistence to make them work, compared with the toxic stuff, which is more like garden napalm.

2. Grow at least some of your own food.
Not only does home-grown food taste good, it feels good to grow it and eat it. I don't have enough space to grow all that much food, but I like to have a go at growing almost anything I feasibly can. Here's some of last year's crop of King Edward potatoes, and very yummy they were, too! In my small space I concentrate on growing herbs (which I use all the time in cooking), salad greens and leafy green vegies, none of which take up much space, but I'm always trying something more adventurous, too. Growing your own food has its share of successes and failures, and sometimes it's the little crop failures which remind this city boy about the farmer's precarious lot in life. I think the more people learn to empathise with farmers, the more they'll understand the environmental problems and difficulties that surround farming.

3. Share your garden with insects, and try to practise 'live and let live' as much as possible.
Sure, it's easy to share your potato crop with a pretty little ladybird like this one, but it's harder to share the space with a hungry caterpillar which is just trying to become a butterfly while it eats your crops, or a scary, hairy black spider which is just trying to feed its family while it's giving you a fright. Put away the insect sprays and let them have their little munch on your crops, I say. (However, I do admit that snails probably regard me as no better than Godzilla.)

4. Not only share your garden with local wildlife but also provide them with food and shelter where you can. Add your backyard to the growing chain of wildlife-friendly oases!

This wattlebird is a member of a family which has been resident in our front and back gardens for many years. They love the grevillea flowers which are available year round, but their favourite place is our winter-flowering gum tree (our street tree) which provides them, and an assortment of other honeyeaters, with nectar for five to six months every year. We also have set up two birdbaths in the backyard, and change the water frequently. By allowing insects to thrive in the backyard little insect-eaters such as Blue Wrens and Silvereyes are regular visitors here. Bulbuls have been building nests in our murrayas and olive trees for years now. Even though we're in the inner city we're visited by a remarkable range of native birds – spotted pardalotes, cockatoos, lorikeets, cuckoo shrikes and many more (including a lost egret one day) – and the reason for this I am sure is that more and more backyards are springing up just like ours, with wildlife-friendly people like Pam and me doing our little bit to add to the chain of wildlife-friendly oases within the urban desert.

5. Learn to cook, then do it often.
This is easy enough for me to say, as I've been cooking since I was 10 years old. I love it. But I do think learning to cook puts you in contact with the simple ingredients of food – real ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, grains, pulses and meats, not processed gloop or manufactured 'products' full of additives. Why is this good for the environment? Simple, it will change the way you think about food, and as food production is such a huge environmental issue, it will help you focus on this issue in a new way.
(However, I should add that 45 years ago I didn't start cooking because of environmental awareness! I was just a greedy little boy who loved eating, and I wanted to learn how to cook all the delicious things that mum made, so I could become independent and cook them for myself, when I wanted them. I think it was apple crumble that got me started.)

And so endeth my contribution to this Earth Hour meme. I must add that of the people I know who are keen greenies, very few have a decent garden or even a passable knowledge of their local wildlife. And so, my sixth – and free bonus amazing offer! – Earth Hour memo is to actually get out there and practise what you preach, rather than just preaching it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Do it again

While, as a gardener, I'm always interested in trying something new, the lure of repeating a previous success is hard to resist sometimes. And that force becomes irresistible when I know how much my wife Pam loves poppies, our best little success story from last year. And so I'm starting up our winter poppy patch again, very happily, too.

Here's the scene last year which delighted us for months, providing lots of colour outside and a steady stream of cheery faces in vases for the house. I learned a bit from last year's first attempt with poppies, and plan to do things slightly differently this time round.

This is the garden in late March, just before a patch of rainy weather sent the marigolds into mushy decline, and just before a very large tomcat decided to make a bed/love-nest (or fight club?) of the zinnia patch, flattening whole sections as if he was a furry, ginger crop-circle maker.

By early Easter Saturday everything was yanked out ruthlessly, except for the curly parsley border, which is soldiering on quite well. This might sound awful, but I love clearing a garden bed, making it ready for the next project!

My recycling bin over-floweth with ex-zinnias and ex-marigolds!

Half an hour of gentle exercise digging in a goodly amount of chicken manure, garden lime and compost, and the beds were ready for their next assignments.

I've blogged about my Asian hand tools before here, but I do love them and just want to mention them again. On the left, the Korean Ho-Mi, on the right, the Japanese Niwashi. The Ho-Mi handles heavier ground better, but the Niwashi is by far my favourite for tilling soil, provided it has been loosened by a heavier tool first.

Another half hour or so later and Mr Impatient has planted out the two bare beds. In the foreground is a bed of leafy greens and herbs (from right to left, a row each of lettuce, English spinach and Asian Pak Choy – great in stir-fries), and beyond that bare earth which has been sown with seeds of coriander and dill, plus a bare patch awaiting some garlic cloves I have mail-ordered. In the rear bed is the poppy patch.

I say I'm impatient because I decided to buy poppy seedlings and plant them out, instead of starting from seed, but there's a spot of reasoning behind this. Last year, I found my seed-raised poppies had very slender stems which were easily damaged by winds, while one little section of poppy patch, grown from seedlings to fill a few gaps, produced plants with much more stout stems and generally a better selection of colours, too. So this year I'm going for all bought-seedling poppies. (As I was at the garden centre buying the Iceland poppy seedlings, all those other vegie seedlings just sitting there begging to be planted proved irresistible, and so I bought them, too.)

During Saturday's dig-a-thon the soil seemed moderately moist and was full of happy worms squirming with annoyed surprise as I churned over the soil with my Niwashi, so prospects were good for a great start. And then last night (Monday) the rains really started to come down, and this morning there was two inches (50mm) of rain in the gauge. Having planted seedlings, instead of seed, and then getting perfect "I wish" rainfall overnight, I almost feel guilty at how easy it all has been, but not quite. Poppies, here we go again!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Looking up, for inspiration

Easter might be a time when people contemplate the heavens for understandable and very profound reasons, but I found myself gazing upwards while forced to spend a few hours reading, indoors, on this rainy Easter Monday afternoon. Here's the scene I encountered, a rather pleasant one.

You might think you see flowers here, and if you're familiar with Australian flowers you might even say "nice waratah ceiling" – and you'd be right. It is a waratah-patterned plaster ceiling dating from around 1916, when the house was built. This was a time when Australian nationalism was enjoying its early years, when all over Sydney houses were being built in the 'Federation' style that celebrated our nationhood (which goes back to 1901). This nationalism expressed itself in many forms, but architecture has a way of hanging around for centuries, a most commendable virtue. Now, I don't grow waratahs in my my backyard as they are devilishly difficult to grow for a variety of reasons, and so I can't, at this point, slip in a lovely shot of my own backyard waratah.

Instead of Googling up and pinching one of a dozen or more outstanding waratah photos available there, I thought I'd do the Australian thing and plunder our State Government's stock of online waratah graphics (as it's our State floral emblem). As a taxpayer I've paid for my pixel's worth of this image, which illustrates for those readers not familiar with waratahs the lovely big flower in question (Telopea speciosissima). When in flower in the bush they can stand anywhere from three to five or more feet high, usually, and each shrub will have several blooms, each about six or so inches across. They are a wonderful, indeed stunning, sight, definitely at their best in a natural bushland setting, too. While they have been hybridised lately into white and yellow blooms, the natural reds are the most beautiful, as far as I am concerned.

The only waratah which blooms in my backyard is my lovely Mambo waratah shirt on washing day. However, wash days for this fine garment are rare, only because I wear it just once or twice each year, at Christmas time (lovely red and green theme, don't you think?)
While it would be nice to grow a backyard waratah, this is not an easy plant to grow here near the coast. The soil is too heavy, the humidity too high and it's a bit too warm, too. It's more of an inland or a mountain plant (the best ones I've seen in the bush have all been mountain plants), and so although my living room's waratah-themed ceiling suggests "go on, have a go at growing one" I still don't think I'll give it a try. Besides, I have other rooms and ceilings to choose from, for garden inspiration!

Moving one room down the hallway, to my home office/study, the ceiling there is not of an Aussie native plant at all – it looks like sunflowers to me. Most Federation houses have some sort of ornate-pattered ceilings, but most home-owners are content to paint them in 'ceiling white' paint. I've been into houses where hippies with a lot of time on their hands have started to 'colour-in' their ornate ceilings with the 'correct' colours, and you might be shocked to hear this, but it's not a great look, especially when it's half-finished and abandoned when it all got too hard, man. However, out in the garden, sunflowers I can do (as can a child, admittedly).

Last stop down the hallway, the bedroom, and the plant overhead was a bit of a mystery to me for a while, but I think that's an acorn in the centre of the motif, and that we're looking at is an oak tree. And so our architect who designed my house was having a bet each way. Lying back and thinking of England in the bedroom (botanically speaking, that is) but quite proud to be a native Australian, albeit fully clothed, in the living room. As there was a war on at the time, it was probably not a good thing to be seen as too disloyal to the Mother Country. And so my house's ceilings are a little window into the politics of the time. But my interest, which sparked this somewhat formless, meandering posting, was originally gardening. So let's get back to that.

It's too late for sunflowers this year. But next spring, I have a spot for them in mind, and if I'm really organised I'll bring some home-grown sunflowers into my study, too. And in honour of the waratahs I'll buy a few bunches from the florist next spring so we can at least have them in the living room at eye level, and all the way up at sky-level, too.

Post script: the one nice little bonus anecdote about our lovely ornate plaster ceilings concerns the people who preserved them so well – Jim and Angela, a Greek couple, the previous owners of our house.

We got to know Jim and Angela in the brief period between when we bought the house and they packed up and returned to their native Greece, to be with their daughter. Our suburb is a major Greek area in Sydney, and when a great many practical, home-maintenance-loving Greek men saw those ornate ceilings they collectively said "what a nightmare to paint and maintain" – and so they ripped them out and replaced them with plain, flat ceilings. In the process, many Federation houses lost a lot of their charm, and while that saddened some Aussies it pleased a lot of Greek homemakers who were too busy making babies and building a new life to worry about sanding back and painting stupid waratahs!

However, Jim and Angela had a different approach. They believed they were moving to Australia to make a new life in a new world, and when they looked up and saw the house's ornate ceilings they loved them straight away, saw them as a symbol of their new world, and left them, and most of the house's architectural features, intact.

For a very long time a lot of Anglo Aussies privately sneered at the Greek love of covering lawns with concrete, lining up mini-Parthenon-style white columns to form front fences, pulling out timber windows and replacing them with aluminium ones, and replacing ornately decorated ceilings with plain ones. The Anglos saw it as being nothing but vandalism. But times and attitudes are changing, and now our local council has recognised a distinct class of architecture here under the name of "Fedeterranean" – Federation houses renovated in the Mediterranean way. These Fedeterranean houses usually also have big, comfy, shady outdoor living areas – something all the Anglo Aussies have now learned to appreciate and copy in various ways.

I'm Anglo-Celtic and I love our Federation architecture, and fortunately there is an enormous amount of it well preserved here in Sydney. And I love my Greek neighbours too, they're wonderful people who really know how to enjoy life. But I'm glad I have my beautiful, ornate ceilings to enjoy, even if they're more likely to inspire my choices at the local florist, rather than at the garden centre.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

This n that

Well, blogger me, I've been busy lately! Unfortunately it's been the kind of busy-ness that earns money but doesn't look after gardens or provide much fun. However, with four luxurious days of Easter stretching out into the near distance, things are looking much more entertaining once more. As for what's been happening here in Amateur Land, with no time for much work lately all I have to note is a bit of this n that here and there, hence the blog title.

While I've mentioned my other zinnia patch I haven't devoted any space to this charming pocket of Zinnia angustifolia plants, which is near my lemon tree towards the back of the garden. There are just four plants pictured here. It's a low, spreading thing that will reach 70cm across, so the books say.

I'm quite taken with its pretty little orangey-yellow cluster of inner blooms, which look like so many mini frangipanis. There's no scent to speak of but the sight is cheery – it's a plant which makes you smile.

Here's the latest addition to the garden, an impulse buy (of sorts) this morning. I was at a gardening centre this morning buying mulch for a job I'll be doing at my mother-in-law's tomorrow, and while wheeling around in my usual retail centre daze I spotted this Acacia cognata 'Limelight'. Pam has been wanting me to grow one for about a year, ever since she saw an Acacia cognata at the Sydney Botanical Gardens. The one at the Botanical Gardens is fab, a small, dome-shaped foliage plant with a weepy habit – and the foliage is, as the name implies, lime-green.

Anyway, I've been a bit hesitant to get one, as my expert horticulturist friend said, when I mentioned Pam wanted me to get one, those fateful words: "Good luck – can be a bit tricky, you know". Now, with Australian natives that comment translates into "Will grow well for a while, then suddenly look sick then die within three days". Fortunately, it's all started out well. Though priced at $15.95 it had the wrong plant-label and barcode on, and I got it for $6.95. Great start – I'm feeling optimistic already! It's headed for a much larger pot and a sunny spot.

Speaking of lovely green foliage, I've tossed in this shot of the mint pot today as I plan to blog away soon about an interesting little project I have underway. Some good friends have just bought a house nearby and have blown all their dough on a kitchen renovation, so they have no money for a garden. So, I've decided to create a little garden for them, all from cuttings and seeds (hence the mint shot – I'm striking mint cuttings, which is about as tricky as breathing). My friends are both very good cooks, so a herb and salad garden is where we're headed. They haven't got a clue about gardening, which is why I think we'll start out small and see if they can master the first basic – keeping plants alive by remembering to water them – before we move onto the Bablyonian hanging gardens, etc.

This is the mint after 12 days in a jar of water. Isn't vigorous or anything, is it? I've also dug up clumps of oregano and thyme, and taken cuttings of rosemary and sage, and the seed trays of lettuce, green onions, spinach, silver beet, coriander and parsley are all making good progress, too. Once it all gets going, it should be fun to blog about later on.

My succulents are loving autumn, and several of them, such as this echeveria, are flowering their funny looking little heads off. Though succulents come from climate zones with hot, dry summers, those same climate zones also often have wet, cool winters, and so these plants have adapted to do all their growing and flowering in autumn, winter and spring. Then they shut down for the summer, living off their stored reserves of moisture (hence their 'waterwise' reputation, which is a bit misleading when it comes to their care). And though Sydney is a much more consistently moist place than their homelands, they still respond to the cooler weather and shorter daylight hours of autumn, even here, and they're all thriving now. This is when I feed them and water them if it's been dry for several days in a row.

If you think the succulents are a bit strange looking, this alarming pink fungus, which sprang up from the mulch near my lemon tree, is in a class of its own. By dawn the next day it was gone (or, more accurately, detumescent), but it hosted a hell of a party for all the local flies attracted to its alluring (but very, very slight) 'dead flesh' smell.

Autumn has also seen an explosion in the local spider population, and this year there are big numbers of what I call the 'homemaker' spiders – those which include a wrapped-up leaf within their web as a protective shell.

As I was taking my photo of Homey he/she very obligingly popped out and attended to yet another foolish insect which wandered into his/her web. He/she was out doing that amazing, spidery silk-weaving thing for a mere 20 seconds, scurrying back to its leafy address once dinner had been organised.

Speaking of organising dinner, that's what I should be doing now, instead of blogging. Here's a small part of it, some young olive-leaf rocket, a new variety which I'm growing from seed. As it's so small I won't take too much, but I need a bed of rocket for what I have in mind.

The rest of tonight's bed of rocket will come from this pot of the common type of rocket which everyone grows here, which is ready for harvesting. I'm a great believer in harvesting and eating rocket when it is very small and nicely nutty. Leave this pot for another week and the rocket will start to take on that strong, peppery flavour that very few people like.

And tonight's meal is simple. Grilled lamb cutlets served on a bed of rocket, with a combo of baked vegetables on the side.

I'm off to my mother-in-law's garden to hack back some choko vines and teach some other garden bullies a lesson tomorrow. Pam's mum is a super-keen 80-year-old gardener who's not up to the heavy work any more, but she's great fun to be with at all times. I've got all the essential supplies organised that we'll need to make it a great day with her: secateurs, gloves, loppers, trugs, fertiliser and mulch for me – and for Pam and her mum, their favourite – champagne!