Sunday, June 28, 2009


Sometimes I do think champagne lacks class when it comes to opening time. All that loud popping, the froth eruptions, the giggles. It's OK if you've just won the Grand Prix and you're already a mess, I guess, but in the morning at least I much prefer the silent symphony of the first poppy of the season popping its cork.

At last, after weeks of promise, of poppy pinching to hold the orchestra back until everyone was ready, the first poppy of the season flips its lid.

Disshevilled at first, the newly hatched bloom stretches its crepe paper petals to catch the light. But it's a cloudy day and the opening is leisurely, as if it has just woken from a long, curled-up sleep.

By mid-afternoon it's getting into the swing of things, opening up its radar dish to collect the signals from heaven. Huey is pleased.

Many of the others are still lagging behind, but sprinkled with the early morning dew they look willing enough. Hold on, I'm coming!

Just a single spot of colour gives a hint that this punk is ready to rock. If poppies were people I always think by the look of their spiky punk hairdos that they'd also wear a safety pin through their nose and listen to Johnny Rotten or The Saints.

Anyway, the good news is that Pammy's poppy patch is back in business for another winter of vases colourfully filled with the simplest, prettiest flowers from the garden.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fun with compost

It was the perfect day for the annual compost harvest here in Amateur Land. Cool and cloudy, with very little chance of working up a sweat. Given that there's always a fair bit of heavy lifting, shovelling, forking and bending involved in my little compost harvesting operation, I couldn't have asked for a more helpfully miserable day. This is a once-a-year job, and it's always well worth doing, as I now have all the compost I could possibly use in a year, and another batch on the way.

Here's this year's batch of sweet-smelling, dark and crumbly compost. It has actually been ready to use for the last couple of months, and I have been using it in the garden, too. But there comes a time each year when I do what I call my 'harvest' of the compost. I remove all the good quality, ready-to-use compost from my efficient tumbler compost bin, and store it in my other, more basic bin, one of those inefficient black Dalek bins.

This photo just barely squeezes in the Dalek bin on the left (and also in the mirror reflection on the right), and the tumbler bin is in the background. All this is hidden from view by a small hedge of murrayas.

Traa daa! The empty tumbler bin. It holds quite a lot (full capacity would fill five or six of the pictured trugs), but its one real design fault is that getting the compost out of the bin isn't that easy. It involves a lot of scooping and shovelling and, towards the end, tipping the bin straight into the plastic trugs. (As my garden is too small for wheelbarrows, my trugs do all the wheelbarrowey work around here. I love them.)

This is the harvested compost from the bins. As well as using this stuff to fertilise garden beds and especially vegie beds prior to planting, I also use my compost as a potting mix 'extender', mixing it 50:50 with a good quality potting mix. As all modern potting mixes are just a glorified and expensive form of compost anyway, adding my rich, home-grown stuff probably improves its overall quality. My other use for compost is when I plant seedlings. After preparing the planting site, I add a good scoop of compost, firm it down, then plant each seedling straight into that. They usually roar away in that rich little environment.

The old black Dalek bin plays an important role here, but it's a pretty hopeless compost bin. Its main role is to be the 'overflow' bin. Once the main tumbler bin is absolutely chock-full in late summer/early autumn, I stop adding stuff to it and let it break down for several weeks, tumbling it over regularly to help everything break down faster. Meanwhile, all the fruit and vegie scraps from the kitchen, plus suitable garden clippings, go into the 'overflow' Dalek bin for however many weeks it takes for my tumbler-bin batch of compost to fully break down.

Today's big harvest operation is laborious, but it's essential. I take all the 'made' compost out of the tumbler bin and set it aside in the trugs. Then I transfer all the contents of the Dalek bin into the tumbler. Then I transfer the made compost into the Dalek bin, which then becomes a mere storage unit for ready-to-use compost. Sounds like hard work, but I try to think of it as good exercise! And for the last few years it has let me both make and store all the compost I could ever wish for.

As you can see in the photo above, one of the magic composting ingredients I have discovered is cheap garden mulch. Every time I add a bucket-full of fruit and vegie scraps from the kitchen, I add a handful of straw mulch. Any old straw mulch will do. Here in Sydney the cheapest stuff is sugar cane mulch. This 'dry' straw balances out the relatively 'wet' fruit and vegie scraps, producing a nice, not-too-dry, not-too-wet, mixture. To further balance out the acidity of the fruit and vegie scraps, I add in a handful of dolomite lime when I add the straw. This keeps the acidity (pH) of the compost somewhere near neutral. You could add shredded newspaper instead of straw, if that's plentiful, but I tried shredding my own office paper and tired of the workload of doing that. Just opening the shed door, reaching in and grabbing a handful from the bag of mulch near the door works a lot better for me!

Another magic ingredient in composting is air. That's why the tumbler bin is so superior to the Dalek bin. Trying to poke a garden fork down into a Dalek bin to give everything a stir is too much hard work even for me, and I'm a glutton for punishment when it comes to composting! By comparison, giving the tumbler bin a spin is easier, although when my large bin is close to full it does take a fair bit of strength to turn it over.

My final 'magic' ingredient in composting is good old garden soil. It's full of worms, microbes and life, and so I usually add one or two scoops of ordinary, fertile, healthy garden soil to help get a batch of compost going.

Hopefully a few of these tips might be useful to someone who's trying to get their composting system working but is finding it hard to get the formula right. It took me several years to get the hang of making good compost, and so it's definitely not as easy as some people make it out to be. But then again, it isn't rocket science either. Just a bit of persistence, adding a steady variety of ingredients to the bin to achieve a good wet-dry balance, plus remembering to turn the heap over regularly, should do the trick.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bung's bingle

Coming home from Saturday morning shopping last weekend I came across a distressing scene. A family of a mum, dad and teenage daughter were standing in a circle in the street outside my house, looking down at a dead parrot on the roadway. Dad's two-tonne four-wheel-drive behemoth had collided with a five-ounce parrot, and not surprisingly, the parrot lost.

The poor young girl was terribly upset, so I told them not to worry. I wouldn't leave the poor dead bird out on the road. I'd bury it in my backyard and make sure it at least got treated with a bit of respect. That seemed to be all we could do, and so they parted with a mixture of sorrow and thanks.

Then, when I came out with my trusty shovel to scoop up the dead parrot, it sat up much in the way that someone who has just lost a boxing match sits up. Groggily. Wobbily. And so the bird I immediately christened 'Bung', due to his obviously bung wing and bung leg, entered Amateur Land for a brief stay.

Fast forward to the good news. Bung survived the night, and this is him the next day, perched in a rapidly fading canna lily (which is due for the midwinter cutback-to-the-ground next week) gnawing at the stem.

Bung's first couple of hours after his collision with the four-wheel-drive weren't too promising. Still sitting on the shovel, he was carried to some shade next to my shed, where I provided him with a dish of water. But he just sat there, stunned, unmoving. I kept an eye on him, and after a couple of hours he was still there, not having moved at all. I had to go out on some more errands, so I put him in my shed, still sitting there on my shovel. Two hours later I came home, and he was now walking around my shed, pooping pink parrot poo on my floor. And so I ushered him out into the garden, where he wandered about the seedlings unsteadily.

There are wildlife rescue groups around (here in Sydney the main one is called WIRES) and as I have friends in WIRES I know their quite sane policy is to euthanase injured birds with no hope of recovery and return to the wild. So there was no way I was sentencing Bung to a certain death! Maybe his wing was just bung, not broken? After a while I shephered Bung towards something more familiar, a flowering grevillea. As a nectar-feeding bird he'd know what to do once he got there.

The next morning he was happily feeding away, hopping from branch to branch. Plenty of food there, and if he got sick of red grevillea flowers he could pop across the path to feed on my yellowy-peachy-greenish 'Peaches and Cream' grevillea.

It seemed that Bung's wing was Bung, as Pam spotted him calmly walking the 15 feet from the red grevillea, down the central pathway and across to the other grevillea. As a wild thing he was very nervous about us, and a couple of times when startled he managed to fly a promising 10 to 15 feet. Maybe his wing was just injured, and not broken? We'll never know, but Bung stayed with us for four days, seeming to gain strength and mobility each day. And then suddenly he was gone. We do have local cats visiting our backyard, but if they managed to get at Bung I would have expected to find some evidence of their dirty work. I've looked everywhere and haven't found a thing. So we'll never know what happened to Bung.

Bung was a member of our large street tree community of rainbow lorikeets, who would have been audible to him at all times while he was recuperating in our backyard. Maybe he managed to fly the 100 feet to join them again? It seem unlikely, but maybe that's what happened. I've looked into the tree to spot one lorikeet with a wonky wing, but they all seem to be merely colourful but perfectly formed.

These rainbow lorikeets are certainly not an endangered species of bird. They're plentiful here in Sydney, many people would say 'too plentiful', and they're probably right. I thought I was just burying a dead parrot to ease a distressed young girl's feelings. I even chuckled to Pam that we had a 'dead parrot' a la Monty Python before I discovered that Bung wasn't dead.

And then when he sat up, suddenly I felt responsible. And I guess that's true. I planted the flowering street tree. I planted the grevilleas to attract native birds, too. And so as a gardener I play quite an interventionist role in nature, seemingly for both good and bad in equal measure, no matter how good my intentions.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Soggy Saturday

Mustn't grumble. There's bound to be another drought sometime down the track. But not today. Not a chance. It's a soggy Saturday in Sydney and all the little gardeners have their noses flattened against the windows, their breaths clouding the panes while they look out at the steady rain. It was meant to be "cloudy with showers" but they've got it wrong this time. It's rain, sometimes heavy, and everything is shiny and cold.

And so here's the soggy scene at Amateur Land one day shy of the shortest day of the year. By many gardeners' standards our midwinter is still a fairly green and lush affair, but look carefully and you can see the big slabs of brown dirt where seeds haven't sprouted and vegies haven't roared ahead to fill the open spaces carefully fertilised just for them a few weeks ago. The only spot of promise is Poppy Land, the green effusion to the left of the clothes line. They'll be in colourful bloom soon to put a smile back into the garden.

Of course sogginess isn't next to ugliness or anything like that. Here's a lovely bunch of Nagami cumquats just begging to be turned into marmalade.

But sogginess is definitely next to muddiness, and my garlic experiment is hanging in there but begging, just begging, for a few sunny days to dry out the soil there. Speaking of garlic experiments, tomorrow is planting day for Stage Three of the Grand Plan – the garlic cloves which have spent a whole eight weeks chilling out in the crisper section of the fridge. Having been tricked into thinking they're in Holland, they're now ready for planting on our 'shortest' day of the year, June 21. (This is purely based on the old saying of "plant on the shortest day of the year, harvest on the longest day of the year"). The other two rows are doing well (one was planted in April, without pre-chilling, the other in May, after four weeks' chilling).

The birdbath is constantly rippled with raindrops. If it gets any heavier there'll be waves.

Fortunately I don't have to venture out into the rain to read the gauge – that's a morning task anyway. But from a distance my estimate is that an inch of rain (25mm) has fallen since 9am this morning. By Sydney rainy day standards that's nothing exceptional at all, but it's funny when your expectations are for 'showers' and your gardening plans are thoroughly disrupted by 'rain', it just feels that much wetter somehow. You can potter around on a showery day, ducking under cover for a few minutes if needed. But rainy days are another matter altogether. Either you're out there and sodden, or inside, warm and dry.

But tomorrow, no matter what the weather, I am planting that last batch of garlic, even if it's blowing a gale, storms are lashing down sideways and I'm sinking deep into the mud. Actually that sounds like fun, come to think of it!

Monday, June 15, 2009

I've turned 100!

Milestones are fun to whizz past with a cheer, waving to the befuddled bystanders on the side of the road who wonder to themselves: "Who's that idiot?" Doesn't matter, he's just a nutty garden blogger celebrating his 100th posting. Some bloggers seem to log up their 100th posting in about 100 days. I've taken my time – almost a year to the day, but not quite. And so to celebrate this utterly insignificant milestone I thought I'd take you for a guided tour behind the scenes at Amateur Land – a tour of my garden shed.

Only part of this magnificent green structure is my garden shed. In fact, it's just the little annexe on the right, in front of the birdbath. The larger section on the left is the original garden shed, which once housed motorcycles and assorted boy's things, and which has now become part of Pam's art-studio and publishing empire and is now full of girl's things, plus a photocopier. Talk about love, devotion and surrender!

The doorman to my shed is actually a plastic moneybox, found by Pammy in a shop in nearby Newtown. I've filled him with sand to give him some gravitas and he's doing a splendid job holding the door open, even on windy days.

Staying in proportion with the small scale of the small 9m x 7.5m garden here in Amateur Land, my shed measures a modest 1.7m wide x 2.7m long (although perhaps 1.7m narrow x 2.7m short is closer to the mark).

Fortunately the shed has an exposed timber frame, allowing me to bang oodles and oodles of nails into spots here, there and everywhere to hang things from. I'm a great believer in nail-based storage systems for both their cheapness and ease of expansion! Pictured here is the garden hand tools section, just hanging around.

All the digging tools hang from nails as well, although you need to be very careful how you load and unload these heavier chaps. They're 'out there' on the edges of a nail-based storage system's capacity to cope.

Wall studs naturally enough become shelves, but even the undersides of the wall studs are used as storage. All you need to do is bang nails into each jar's lid, then nail the lids to the underside of the stud. Big tip here: use two nails per lid. If you use just one nail, the lid spins on it, like an axis. With two nails, the lid doesn't spin as you twist it.

A sturdy but small pine kitchen table provides the only bench space here. The table is such a tight fit in the shed that you'd have to take every last thing out of the shed if you ever needed to get it out (so the solution is never to be so silly as to think about doing such a thing). I'm just starting up a collection of tins for storing things. The Weet-Bix Aussie cricket heroes tin is currently worthless, but could fetch up to $5 in 25 years' time, so I'm taking the long-term view on that investment.

The Anzac biscuit tin fits into the same investment strategy as the cricket heroes tin. I spotted it in my local Woolworths supermarket last year, gave the biscuits away (I don't like biscuits all that much) and kept the tin. The 'backstage' part of the gnome painting factory looks like a hive of activity, but the sad truth is that it has looked like that for a couple of years now. The garden is chock-a-block with gnomes (I've run out of hiding places), so there's no reason to rush these fellows out into service, they'll only be seen. I'm thinking of finishing them off during a bout of unemployment, illness, retirement, lunacy or some other malady needing long hours of gentle therapy.

Turning around and looking out to the garden, the view is pleasant without being all that panoramic. My neighbour Spiro, who is a builder, knocked up the shed for me and he's done a good job with it. The central strip of translucent roofing means I never need to turn the light on by day. The flooring comprises leftover lino from the kitchen. The little section of concrete slab exposed at the doorway has "P&J" engraved into it, so Pam and I might be discovered by archaeologists one day, who'll think we're a cult or something. But probably not.

And so that's my 100th post here at Garden Amateur. I can't imagine I'll rack up another 100 posts by this time next year, but I'll plod along happily, not really caring that all my postings are too long for the busy, time-poor world of today (I know, I know, 'keep it short' some people say – but that's just not my style).

Though my audience is very small, this is the fate of 99.9% of all of us bloggers, so I don't mind. Several people have said nice things about my blog over the last year, and I always appreciate every bit of feedback I get, and I do especially love it when someone has found something posted here to be helpful. There are numerous bloggers whose posts I invariably read and enjoy (many of them are on my blog roll on the side of my blog), and I like to think I'm on a couple of people's regular reading 'beat', too.

The other thing I also really get a kick from is seeing the world map at the very bottom of my blog (the Sitemeter thing). I simply love it when I manage to get dots shining away from all continents on that map: Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Asia and, of course, Australia. I feel like a citizen of the world when that happens. Since I started up my Sitemeter thingy in late November last year, I've had (as of this afternoon) 7720 visitors, so that works out at around 14,000 a year. Wow, that's an audience!

And so the only way I should finish this 100th posting is to say a huge 'thank you' to everyone who has ever visited my blog, and maybe an even bigger 'thank you' to all those wonderful, encouraging 'regulars' – almost all of whom are fellow bloggers – who often leave comments and friendly feedback. Anyway, onwards to posting 101 and beyond!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Nanna's garden

Last Sunday I went over to pick up my wife Pam's mum, Val, to take her to a birthday celebration for one of her grandchildren on the other side of town. Though it was a grey and overcast afternoon, there was just enough light to take a few snaps, and so I thought for a change of pace, instead of blogging about my little patch, I'd celebrate Nanna's garden, and a very good garden it is, too. It's mostly a front garden, one which all the passers-by in her area enjoy every day.

Val loves to bring garden blooms indoors to pop into vases. This is a doddle to do in the warmer months, as her garden flowers prolifically, but in winter it's not so easy. So here's three cheers for camellias – the mainstays of so many winter gardens here in Sydney and elsewhere.

Val's garden provides a lot of pleasure to passers-by, as the street where she lives always seems to have someone walking past – commuters heading for the bus stop, elderly Chinese couples from the nearby new townhouse development getting some exercise, plus mums and dads walking the dog. There are lots of friendly calls of 'hello', 'hi' and 'how are you doing' exchanged around here.

Around the western side of the house, in a spot which gets full sun, this bed has been self-seeding itself for many years. In summer it's filled with colourful daisies of various sorts, plus succulents, pelargoniums, gazanias, chrysanthemums and a few other interlopers who've made a home for themselves there.

I think these dramatic, spiky plants are yuccas, and they say a lot about Val's willingness to try new things and see how they go. They're going OK, too!

At the back of Val's house the zygocactus are in bloom. These hardy plants, which are almost invariably grown in hanging baskets, flower here in May and June, and their colours are almost fluoro in their intensity. Val's favourite colour is a slightly more subdued salmon, but alas my photo of that one is a blurry travesty taken in too-low light, and so the best I can manage is this dazzling pink person.

There isn't just one basket of zygos at Val's. There are several, and in combination the effect is tropical in its intensity, a welcome burst of warmth in late autumn and early winter.

Out near the letterbox the last of the autumn daisies are still catching the sun. With a light clipping back they'll return next season.

Many of the beds at Val's are very easy-care, as they are based on succulents, whose foliage colour provides a year-round blend of fresh green, earthy red and bluish-grey.

The elderly Chinese couples passing by approve greatly of Val's long line of 'money trees' (Crassulas) as they are said to bring prosperity to the house and its occupants.

Foliage plays an especially important role in winter, when the flowers are not so plentiful. This sight out near the letterbox greets the postman every day.

And of course there are gnomes in Nanna's garden!

The reason I took my camera to Val's was a request from Pam to take some photos of the Japonica (the flowering quince) in bloom. Unfortunately I was too early and this was the sole flower I could find. These plants flower on bare stems in winter and look quite impressive for several weeks. They're an old-fashioned plant found in many Nannas' gardens, and Pam wants one. I don't have space for this size of shrub in my own garden and wondered how I could fit one in. Then I read that japonicas can make an excellent bonsai specimen, so that is a little assignment for me to add to my list.

And so that's a quick lap of Nanna's garden. There are all sorts of tired old jokes about mothers-in-law, but the fact is that Val and I are very good mates. We share a love of gardening – a love of Pam! – and a love of food, wine, movies, politics and art – but, alas, not the same music! She's a jazz fan from way back, yet she doesn't just listen to the old stuff. Her CD collection is full of young jazz musicians' work, and she's always keen on seeing live music when the chance arises.

She's an amazing person who does a huge amount of community work, and she's a living legend in her local arts scene. She knows more mayors, MPs and politicians than any other little old white-haired Nanna I've ever met, that's for sure. She's always complaining about how terrible it is to be the mother of children aged in their mid 50s, but the best thing about Val is her amazing zest for living. It's there in her personality, and it's there for all the world to see in her garden, too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

African babies

Arriving at work the other day, I found these three people on my desk. They look a bit like papa bulb, mama bulb and baby bulb. One glance at the wonderfully illegible scrawl on the sheet of paper nearby told me that my good friend Geoffrey had left me something delightful to try in my garden, but what?

Bulbs are a bit like ducklings, if you appreciate a good fairy tale, and like swans. Not at their best when a baby, but quite magnificent when all grown up. These are bulbs of Scadoxus puniceus, but they have the common name of Natal paintbrush.

Geoffrey's excellent instructions, once I had decoded his handwriting, said to plant them shoulder deep, about a foot apart, in a well-lit but shady or semi-shady spot. Definitely nowhere out in full blazing hot sun, and preferably somewhere that will get its fair share of moisture. No worries, I've got several candidates to fit that bill.

Hopefully this is shoulder-deep. There is a bit of a ridge-line running around them, just where they change from bulbous bottom to volcano cone top.

All settled in for the winter, they'll send up their flower spike at the end of winter (August), and then the green leaves follow in spring.

Thanks to a quick search of Google images (this one is from the – thanks!) this is what I should see in a few months' time. Geoffrey says the biggest bulb will definitely flower, so too the middle one (probably, hopefully – I have planted them a bit later than the ideal time) but baby bulb might not do its thing till 2010. He says the flowers are about the size of an orange, scarlet with gold tips, held up on stout stems 35cm tall. Wow!

While I was not actively in the market for flowering bulbs, I'm really glad to add these three to my garden. Sydney is too warm for the traditional bulbs such as tulips to settle in. They can be grown here for one year's show, but they don't come back the following spring. It's even a bit too warm for many daffodils to thrive and survive, although jonquils and Dutch iris do OK here.

But Scadoxus are another thing. They actually like warm climates and
should enjoy becoming a resident of Sydney. They're a native of South Africa, and as many South African plants are totally at home here in Australia, due to our similar climates, I'm hoping my African visitors will feel very welcome. Thank you, Geoffrey!