Friday, July 31, 2009

Purple patch

We're having a purple patch of lovely weather here in Sydney right now, a wonderful line-up of sunny, fine days. Last week we fell just short of the record for our warmest July day on record – that's a bit over 25°C (77°F) – but these last few days have all hovered around 19 or 20. With the sun on your back it's almost perfect gardening weather, so instead of dutifully heading inside to slave over a work-from-home computer keyboard, I decided to potter about and tend to a few plants while I also took a few snaps of how things are going here in Amateur Land.

I usually stand just outside the back door to take my snaps of the whole garden, but with the morning sun low in the sky making that shot impossible, I ventured all nine metres to way up the other end of Amateur Land to look back to the house, for a change. Lots happening, as usual. Here's a few close ups of what's going on.

While there aren't a lot of flowers in bloom now in the garden, the rosemary has just started producing its pretty mauve flowers. This is such a nice plant just to be near, thanks to those fragrant green leaves.

The poppy patch carries on prettily, but it has such a casual approach to the business of blooming. Though there might be 20 plants in the little patch, each sending up half a dozen droopy-headed stems at a go, you never really see much more than 10-20 blooms fully open at any one time in the little patch. That's plenty to pick in the morning to fill a vase (as Pammy does regularly) but you never get the razzamatazz of the whole patch in bloom all at once. That never happens. Instead, the patch just pops out its pretty blooms a few at a time, never trying to seem all that showy, but it does it so well for several months each year (from early June to early October).

The shallots in the foreground have been like this for weeks, and that's the wonderful thing about them. You can leave them there and just pick one or two when you need them, and leave the rest behind for another day. They do get a bit stronger in flavour as they age, but they're fine in cooking. Behind the shallots is a pot of rocket, and behind that a mixed planting of a couple plants each of Chinese cabbage, mini cauliflower and lettuce. On the left the tatty sage bush is due for its midwinter pruning. I'll cut off about half the growth and it'll bounce back nicely in spring with a new flush of aromatic, soft grey leaves.

I do like the look of this pot of colourful ornamental kale, but I can't take any credit for growing it. It was left behind by the TV crew who filmed here last Wednesday (see my previous blog entry for the details on that). It's pictured here next to some more baby cauliflower plants, and it always amazes me how incredibly diverse the Brassica group of vegies is. Essentially they're all the same plant, Brassica oleracea, but the huge number of different forms the same plant takes – all sorts of cabbages, ornamental kale, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts – it's just amazing.

Hooray, the eschallots are up! Last year I tried growing these onion-family members in a tub of potting mix and it was a miserable failure. This year I whacked them into the cold arms of wintry Mother Earth and in just four weeks all eight bulbs have sent up optimistic little green shoots.

Nearby, the garlic patch marches on. The central row (sown in May) is currently doing the best, but the other rows (one sown in April, the other in June) are still performing respectably, if not quite as well. I'm feeding them monthly with lines of chicken manure sprinkled between the rows.

At last the dwarf peas are getting a bit more sunshine and have started to gain in height and produce some flowers, but as for ambitions of any bumper crops, to quote a great Australian philosopher, Darryl Kerrigan "tell him he's dreaming".

Final stop on the sunny winter morning ramble is the cumquat tree, laden with fruit. This was actually the reason for the TV crew's visit, to do a segment on potted cumquats. These tart little citrus make wonderful marmalade, and that's what I'll be doing with them very soon.

I'd better get back to work. It was just too nice a morning to leave the garden straight away on such a perfect winter's day!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Backyard TV – at my place!

What an interesting day! TV crew here all day filming segments in my backyard. The first one goes to air on Friday night, 6.30pm on Channel Nine, as part of the regular 'Burke's Backyard' gardening segment that's within the 'A Current Affair' TV show on Friday nights. Lots of the other segments they filmed here will appear in coming weeks, so they tell me. They ended up doing several different stories, as the show's presenter, Don Burke, found all sorts of things to repair, plant, repot or just generally talk about here.

Here they are hard at work in Amateur Land, Don, cameraman, 'soundo' and the producer discussing how to do the next segment (on my poppy patch, in this case).

And here's me (right) with the star of the show, Don Burke (left), in what can only be described as a pretty good happy snap starring two bearded, middle-aged Aussie blokes. Now, Don and I aren't strangers by any means. I've been working for him for the last 11 years as a magazine sub-editor, but this is the very first time he has ever come round to my place. And having Australia's most famous gardener visit your garden is like having the headmaster over for dinner when you're a schoolkid. Not relaxing! But it seems I passed inspection, although my secateurs are blunt and I could definitely do better in that department. But I got a Gold Star for general neatness (perhaps I overdid the 'tart up' with the new mulch, etc yesterday afternoon?), received an excellent composting tip, and have promised to move my potted pineapple into a warmer spot.

It was a combination of nerve-wracking anticipation and good fun (plus relief) to have a really expert gardener check out things here at home. Don and I have a great working relationship, and I've learned so much from him over the years. As well as working on his magazine, editing all the text and writing some articles when it is deemed safe for me to do so, and even contributing a few photos, I've lent a hand with the creation of a variety of gardening books and I also have a regular weekend radio spot (for Aussie blog readers, it's on 2UE mornings, 6am-8am, syndicated nationally) where I talk about growing food plants and toss in a recipe or two for good measure. Here's a link to the podcasts for the radio show. I'm on every second Saturday, mostly (the last one was Saturday 25th July, talking about cumquats (if you check out the podcast it's just a bit before the half-way mark in the program), and the next one will be on Saturday August 8).

However, until today I've never had anything to do with the TV side of things, and watching a TV crew work is really fascinating. Very professional but also quite relaxed. They curse the noise from passing planes, trucks and motorbikes, saying in the middle of a take "bugger, stop, let's do it again" (and that happens a lot here in inner-city Marrickville, which is close to airports, shops and transport, as they say. And sometimes they say worse words than bugger, too!). But the whole team works really hard, head down, tail up, as they say. All day long: 9am start, until sunset.

PS: a couple of friends have asked me over the last year, knowing what I do for a living, why I call my blog 'Garden Amateur', when I work on gardening magazines and books and do a regular radio spot on gardening/cooking.

Well, for one thing I don't have any formal gardening qualifications and I'm no expert at all, and don't pretend to be. Out in my garden I keep on making lots of mistakes and don't know the names of zillions of plants, or how to grow them, either. I only blog about what I know, and that's not a lot.

But the real reason for the 'amateur' name is that I do all my gardening for the sheer love of it, not for any other reason. And I also love the old 19th-century idea of the 'amateur' scientist: the person who, without formal qualifications, devotes so much of his/her time to pursuing knowledge about something for love, certainly not for profit or fame. That's why I garden. I do it for love, not for any other reason. And I blog about it for the same reason, too. So there you go, that's me, in case you were wondering.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Midwinter blooms

It's the middle of July here on my side of the world – midwinter – and at first glance you can sometimes deceive yourself into thinking that there's not a lot happening in the garden, especially when it comes to flowers. But that's not really true. As it was a gorgeous winter morning that was headed for an almost perfect day of clear blue skies and a max around 22°C (72°F), I headed out into the garden for half an hour to discover the coolest midwinter flowers I could find here on this lovely warm day in Amateur Land.

First stop the poppies, of course. Open our back door in the morning and the first thing you see are the poppies. And until you wander outside you might be mistaken in thinking that there are just poppies and nothing else. This pretty person is a double. I'm getting all sorts of colours and forms from the same set of poppy seedlings, so poppies just keep on providing a delightful bunch of surprises as the weeks roll by.

Pam's in charge of poppy-picking for vases, and this is this morning's harvest, next to the phone in the hallway (in the low morning light).

Helleborus are called Winter Roses by some folk here, and while they're only vaguely rose-like they certainly do bloom in winter. To enjoy a hellebore in bloom you usually need to get your knees dirty. The flowers hang down, quite close to the ground. They are at their best in a garden if you can find a lofty spot for them (say, atop a ridge on some sloping ground), so you can enjoy them by looking up while standing on the lower level. Fortunately I had an entirely expendable pair of jeans on, and so these blooms are well worth the brown knees.

I made the silly mistake of planting my peas in more shade than I thought they'd get. I guessed incorrectly they'd receive about four hours a day when coming up in June, then the sunshine would increase around now as they got into serious growth. Wrong! They never got four hours back then, and they're barely getting four hours now, so I don't think I'll get much of a crop. Live and learn! At least there's a few pea flowers, and I'll hopefully get a little crop, but I'll probably end up garnishing everyone's mashed potato with a single home-grown pea!

Across the path from the sun-starved peas, the alyssum is enjoying a good deal more sunshine and is as happy as can be.

In the ultra-shade not far from the peas, the tiny white cyclamen are in bloom. These midgets survive from year to year, and always put on an ever so slightly unusual show, courtesy of their odd shapes. Cyclamen are easily bullied by weeds and bigger neighbouring plants, so I don't feel quite so much their grower as I do their protector.

This one needs no protection whatsoever – in fact with grevilleas such as this 'Peaches and Cream', regular pruning does the trick. I have another grevillea nearby, a red-flowered one called 'Superb' which blooms virtually year-round, as this one does. While this grevillea is included here as a 'winter flower' it and its mate could easily get a guernsey in the spring flower, summer flower and autumn flower blogs, as well. And they're much visited by all sorts of nectar-eating native birds, too.

These little yellow puff-balls of wattle bloom are the very first flowers to appear on the groundcovering Acacia baileyana that makes a spectacle of itself in my front garden. It should be in full bloom by the weekend, I hope, but the show is usually over in a few weeks (depends on the weather how long it lasts).

I might as well include this photo of the next spray of orchids well on the way, as the early-flowering orchids are just finishing now, and looking a bit tatty, while these late flowerers should nevertheless still make it onto the 'winter flowering' list.

For the record, these are the early guys, which are a maroony-brown colour. They're at their best in June, and almost all of them end up in vases inside, where they last for weeks.

And also for the record, this photo of the later-flowering pinky-white ones is of course from last year, but I thought I'd toss it in just to show the two types of orchids which bloom here at either end of winter.

Finally, I'd like to finish off with the winter 'flower' I most regret not growing this year, and which I definitely plan to grow next year. Pretty broad beans, from last year's crop. Superb flowers, wonderful vegetables too. Why I didn't grow them this year is all about having not enough space for everything I'd like to grow, and that's something most keen gardeners know all about.

While only a few of our winter's days are as lovely as today's has been, when Sydney decides to put on a pearler of a sunny midwinter's day it somehow feels more special, maybe because the sun-warmed days are still bookended by crispy cold nights. A perfect day for getting outside and enjoying everything the garden has to offer.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Freshwater Pub

I like to think of my backyard birdbath as a freshwater pub for all my flying visitors, somewhere for all of them to enjoy a cool, refreshing drink. Naturally enough, birds galore visit, but sometimes bees and butterflies also stop by for a sip, and so everyone and everything is welcome here. I can't help but think sometimes that a garden without a functioning birdbath is incomplete, and as a contribution to the local wildlife a birdbath really does turn a garden into a sanctuary for them.

This is our nice, old, original stone birdbath we bought 18 years ago, soon after we moved here. It looks a lot older than that, which is a bonus, and it's very popular with the smaller birds. But it does have one minor drawback: its rough texture is ideal for slime and algae to form on, and so it needs frequent cleaning, which is what it gets.

About 10 years ago, we bought this glazed ceramic birdbath, initially thinking of it as a replacement for the old 'slimy' stone one. But 'Old Slimy' remained so popular with the birds that we realised we had actually just installed a second, upmarket birdbath that's consistently more popular with the larger birds. It's up on a plinth about 60cm (two feet) high. It's much, much easier to clean than the old stone bath, and stays cleaner for longer, but the glazed ceramic surface is too slippery for the birds. So, we always have natural stone sitting in the middle, for the birds to land on securely.

Over the years we've acquired two other water bowls which are not birdbaths, but no-one told the birds that, and each water bowl gets its share of visitors enjoying a drink, especially in summer. In the bottom of the larger bowl at the back we've added some glass beads and pieces of colourful Paua shell brought home from a New Zealand holiday.

This avant garde thing was another holiday souvenir. The stainless steel bowl we already had, but the shiny stainless steel globe came from the Art Gallery of Queensland in Brisbane. A Japanese artist had done an installation there of thousands and thousands of these steel balls floating on a large canal-cum-lake thing inside the gallery. Kids were welcome to play and clunk the balls together and make them move round, a nice tactile installation with plenty of clunky, bubbly sound effects. The balls were for sale at the Gallery Shop and so we bought one, and it hasn't deteriorated one bit in the five or so years we've had it here. Small birds like to grip the thin edge of the bowl, look at the other 'bird' in the shiny sphere, and have a drink. It's a remarkably popular part of our Freshwater Pub!

I had mentioned that I always have a stone to place in the glazed birdbath. Both of my stones slope down gently into the water, and this is really handy for little visitors such as bees (pictured here) and butterflies. I need two stones for this bath, as each becomes a bit slimy after a couple of days in the water. So I remove the slimy stone, replace it with the dry one, and it all seems to work pretty well as a little system.

Check the wear on the birdbath brush! It matches the shape of the old stone bowl perfectly. I never ever use any kind of chemical to clean each bath. Just elbow grease, fresh water and the brush. I figure that's safest for all the creatures who use it.

And speaking of the creatures who visit, the other important thing I practise is no discrimination of any sort. It doesn't matter to me whether an innocent creature is a native or an introduced species. I'm an introduced species of sorts. My family originally came here (of their own free will!) from Belfast in 1840, but I was born here and this is my home. I belong to this land. I'm sure this bulbul, which is not a native species, feels exactly the same way as me. Red Whiskered Bulbuls were introduced here in the 1880s from China and India as caged birds – brought here as prisoners, an old Australian story – and they have since thrived mostly in Sydney, where the climate and the availability of backyard fruit trees seems to suit them. Whatever, he and his family is welcome in my backyard. Of course it does get hard to tolerate the starlings and the mynahs and other aggressive exotic species, but they have never taken over in my backyard, or even established all that much of a presence here. They just visit every bit as occasionally as the others.

Of course native birds such as this beautiful magpie, one of the best singers in the Universe, are particularly welcome. I don't do anything special to attract native birds over non-native birds, apart from growing some native plants and cleaning the birdbath regularly. There's no shortage of magpies in my area, and we see lots of native wattlebirds, Blue wrens, New Holland honeyeaters, and Willy wagtails here, plus a surprisingly large variety of occasional native visitors, such as kookaburras, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, even a couple of beautiful little Spotted Pardalotes. One morning I even came across a very seriously lost Heron! I also participate in surveys for a great local research outfit called Birds in Backyards, and if you're in Australia reading this blog, check them out at

Taking on a birdbath is extra work. It needs to become another part of your regular 'garden maintenance' rounds if it's to work properly. As I work from home this is easy for me. Commuters rushing out to catch the train in the morning and then coming home in darkness each evening might find it just not practical.

However, if there is someone at home a lot who has five minutes to spare every second day, then swishing out the birdbath with a brush that you don't use for any other purpose is the main job, apart from refilling the water and maybe changing over a wet, slimy stone for a dry one. The rest is just sitting back and watching.

A few years ago I bought Pammy a nice little pocket-size pair of Nikon binoculars, and they sit on her studio windowsill. The moment old eagle-eyes spots something, she's onto them with the binoculars. If the bird isn't recognised we move onto Phase Two: "get out The Book". I guess we've become an old pair of backyard 'twitchers' (birdwatchers) and a very interesting little hobby that has turned out to be, too!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wombats and country gardens

As a gardener I like to think of myself as being as wildlife-friendly as I possibly can be. My two birdbaths do a brisk trade at all times, and the steady stream of flying visitors which pop in to our garden are always welcome. However, most of my visiting 'wildlife' is birdlife. I am learning all about my insect visitors and doing everything I can not to poison them, and I also got such a thrill last year when a big, fat, harmless native blue-tongue lizard wandered in. He was like a celebrity visitor!

Yesterday I encountered a completely other level of being wildlife-friendly when I visited my good friends Fraser and Rosey at their property in the beautiful old town of Taralga, in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands, about two and a half hours' drive south from Sydney. For several years now, Rosey has been a volunteer carer for WIRES – the wildlife rescue service. Since she moved from Sydney (where she was an expert nurse to countlesss injured birds and possums, mostly) Rosey still helps birds get back into the trees, where they belong, but she has also taken on a bigger and truly fascinating set of furry clients – baby wombats.

Here's Rosey with Bugs and Tick (not sure which is which). Wombats are marsupials. Mum has a pouch and that's where the little ones grow up. Unfortunately, wombats are often killed on the roads and the babies are found still inside the dead mum's pouch. That's where Rosey and numerous other WIRES carers come into the picture. They help to raise the wombats, always with the intention of releasing them back into the wild. Most Australians are already aware of the excellent work of people like Rosey and everyone else at WIRES, but you can read a lot more about them at

Tick and Bugs are less than a year old, but the third wombat in Rosey's care is several months older. Her name is Daisy. Wombats are nocturnal creatures which can dig quite enormous systems of burrows, a habit which doesn't always endear them to farmers (but as many people rightly point out, the wombats were here first!) As you can see in the picture here, Daisy is growing a very nice set of burrow-digging claws!

Daisy is a long way from being fully grown. She's not even half-way yet, and she's still being bottle-fed. She might be a lot bigger than little Bugs and Tick, but she's still a baby wombat, too. Adult wombats are a big, solid lump of an animal which can reach between 30-40 kg when fully grown. Most car drivers would love to avoid them on the road at night, as the damage done to the car in a collision is usually very expensive. Unfortunately, the damage done to the animal in the collision is almost invariably fatal. As I drove home to Sydney I counted six dead wombats and seven dead foxes, the other most common roadkill.

Bugs and Tick live in their own small cage that's tucked up against a shed, where it's sheltered from the prevailing, cool south-westerly winds. Rosey lets them out for a romp around – and they love a good romp, too – then they need no encouraging when it's feeding time, either. They're funny little creatures as they zoom around. They can run quite quickly, usually in sudden spurts of speed, and if you're unlucky to be standing in the wrong spot and not paying attention, they'd thud into your legs at speed, painfully!

While their behaviour at feeding time is of course impeccable, the simple truth is that wombats like to scratch and bite a bit. No wombat carer goes unbitten at some stage in the average year. However, the biting isn't that frequent, and they're generally nice little people to be around. And then occasionally, for no apparent reason, they just get that nibbly urge...

This photo is actually from last year, when Rosey had a really tiny baby wombat, one who was too small and fragile to live in a cage outside. Instead, the little baby slept away her days in a special cloth pouch designed to mimic a wombat mum's pouch. The cloth pouch was hung from a hook in a cupboard, and that dark, warm spot seemed to be perfect for this little wombat, who came out to be bottle-fed a few times each day. All the baby wombats are fed a special formula – not just any old milk.

Bugs and Tick seem to be in rude good health, thanks to Rosey's expertise.

This is the little cage where Bugs and Tick share digs. When Rosey opens the door at feeding time, the wombats happily wander in and out with a very 'home sweet home' kind of familiarity.

Later on, when they get a bit bigger (Daisy's size) they'll move down to this enclosure, where Daisy now lives. By that time Daisy might be back out in the bush somewhere, making a new home for herself. That depends on how she goes, and when she starts to show a desire to move on. Wombats tend to be quite solitary creatures once they reach maturity, and so the little ones, Bugs and Tick, will also eventually each go their separate ways, when they're big enough.

The galvanised iron walls are buried about a metre deep into the soil here, and Daisy has already started to burrow down a foot or so.

Being an animal lover, Rosey has various other residents here on her acreage, of course. This is the enclosure for her horse, to help the animal stop eating itself to death when the pasture gets too lush. Right now, in the middle of winter, the pasture isn't too long, but later on in spring it can grow very rapidly, and that's when the horse's diet needs to be carefully managed.

Fraser and Rosey have two dogs, a black Kelpie called Rex and this guy, Walter, the Dog in Charge of Everything. Walter is fine with the baby wombats and doesn't bother them, but he is jealous and just can't figure out what Rosey sees in them, with all that bottle-fed special treatment. As the self-appointed Senior Animal on the property, Wally's nose is out of joint!

Keeping the grass trim for the meantime, this chap and his two brothers are, unfortunately for them, destined to play an important though brief role in the restaurant business, as they say.

As this is meant to be a gardening blog, and not Animal Farm, the least I can do is finish off not only with a quick whip around Rosey and Fraser's lovely property, but I might as well show you a little bit of the charming town where they have settled in so happily. Their house is typical of many other houses in this historic town. Built from local volcanic stone in the second half of the 19th century, it's definitely 'historic' by the standards of this very young country, Australia.

It's the middle of winter here in Taralga, and this is a notably cool-climate part of the country, too, so their pretty little front garden, which got underway last year, is going through its frost-filled winter snooze right now. Rosey has planted a good mix of cool-climate bulbs (tulips, freesias etc), perennials (foxgloves, acanthus, lavender etc) and shrubs (camellias, buxus, roses etc) here. It's all progressing really well, but with savage frosts likely at any time, it's too early to cut anything back yet, so it's winter snooze time here.

Last night was not especially chilly, but a light frost carpeted the ground this morning. The birdbath froze over sufficiently that I could sit my little camera case on the sheet of ice that had formed overnight. (By the way, for this blog I'm roadtesting a new little Canon 'tourist's' camera, leaving the clunky big Nikon SLR that I usually use at home. It's actually more fun using a simple point and shoot camera – I love it!)

In the middle of winter all the deciduous trees are totally bare, but that just reveals the gorgous lichens in all their colourful hues. Lichens are not harmful for trees, and the only thing they reliably indicate is that the air quality is superb. You need clean air for lichens to form, and Taralga has plenty of that!

Many of the street trees are a brilliant yellow colour, thanks to the lichens. (By the way, lichens are quite fascinating once you learn a bit about them. They're not a single organism. In fact they are two separate things, living in symbiosis. One component is a fungus and the other is an alga, and they grow together as a team. Like any other native plant, they're a protected species and should never be damaged or removed, as they really are completely harmless, even when they cover a tree like this.)

I know this has turned in my marathon all-time-longest-ever blog posting, but what the hell! Let's finish off with a quick lap of Taralga itself. Taralga's heyday was the last few decades of the 19th century, when many churches were built, as well as lots of long-lasting stone houses. So it's regarded as an historic village by Aussie standards.

Seen from a rise in the road on its outskirts, Taralga looks like a typical small country town of NSW. Population 400. If you want to read a bit more about it, this is the Wikipedia entry for Taralga.

The main street itself contains plenty of example of Taralga's distinctive stone houses.

In its heyday Taralga had several fine churches, all built from the local volcanic stone. This one, the former Methodist Church, is now the local museum.

Shabby chic charm and a level of originality that probably needs a bit of maintenance, though they've got their priorities right – there's lots of firewood to keep out the biting chill winds.

And along the road leading from Taralga up to Oberon in the Blue Mountains, a very Australian scene of paddocks, sheep and gum trees.

Phew! What a marathon post. So, if anyone is still with me, after the 24th photo, thank you very much for your forebearance! I'll get back to blogging about gardening here in Amateur Land with my next posting, probably.