Saturday, October 31, 2009

Harvesting coriander seed

As the weather warms up in our Aussie spring, coriander (or cilantro if you prefer that name) gets seriously seedy. This herb isn't really worth bothering to grow in our hot summers. But it is worth harvesting the seeds now, and that's what I've been doing this morning. However, I have also been tracing the plant's progress from leafy to flowery to seedy with my camera, and I thought I'd celebrate this quite beautiful little event.

Freshly harvested green coriander seeds. They smell nice but do look a bit like a insect-egg colony when clustered in a bowl like this.

Just a few weeks ago they were just a bunch of small but pretty flowers.

And a few weeks before that you could tell that the seed-making season had arrived. The broad leaves we use for cooking were giving way to the fine, spindly leaves of coriander that's about to go to seed. Once you see those skinny leaves, your coriander is on the way out.

When the whole plant is in flower it looks like a blowsy cottage garden perennial (or at least from a distance it does), and it still smells as nice as ever if you happen to brush past it while weeding or harvesting other vegies or herbs.

While the flowers, from a distance, look white, up close the buds have a stronger pinkish tinge.

Once opened the flowers blow about and flutter in the slightest breeze, as they're sitting atop stems of very fine foliage. The seeds form about two to three weeks after the flowers.

I'm keeping the seeds for two purposes. One is to use them for planting coriander next year. This year's crop was my best ever, and while it may simply have been kind weather, I'm not taking any chances. I want to grow this plant's babies. The rest of the dried seed will go into the kitchen, probably into something slow-cooked and either Greek or Moroccan.

The seeds themselves are almost translucent, but not quite.

I did a bit of Googling and it seems the tried and tested paper bag method of drying seed is good enough for quite a few people, so that's what I'm doing.

The brown paper bag hangs on a nail inside the shed, and hopefully the seeds will be dry in a few weeks, but I'm not in a hurry. The brown paper bag method worked well for the zinnia flower seeds I saved last autumn, so I can't see why it won't work for these coriander seeds too. Fingers crossed, though.

Planting time for my next batch of coriander is next year, in April or May, once the summer is well and truly over and the cooler weather of autumn has arrived. Autumn, winter and early spring are the coriander growing season here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Four inches in one day

Rain! Since noon yesterday, we have received four wonderful inches (100mm) of much-needed rain. And so this morning everything is very, very soggy and I'm not going out there. Just standing back and taking a few snaps, while under the relatively dryish cover of our pergola area.

Here's soggy old Pam & Jamie Land this morning (click on the photo for a better look). The rain still steadily falling, everything saggy yet shiny, lapping it up, but there are a few victims, inevitably.

This is a calamity in progress, which I was planning to blog about in a week or so, once I've solved a few practical problems with the plants and pots and added some fish etc. It's my new water garden, and this morning it looks like a typhoon victim with an "after" caption attached. Needless to say the Louisiana iris has been rescued from its shipwrecked position and is slowly reviving. More on the water garden next week...

Generally, everything else is as happy as my NSW Christmas bush: wet and bedraggled like commuters who forgot to take their umbrellas, but otherwise happy.

Unfortunately, my African desert dweller, the lithops, is in shock. When I got home yesterday afternoon (by which time 60mm – a bit over two inches – of rain had fallen) I rescued the lithops from the garden and brought it under dry shelter. A further 40mm of rain fell overnight, so the rescue was worth it, but it's looking unhealthily crinkly and dodgy. So, no water for the next three months, lots of sunshine and fingers crossed. It's in the hospital wing for sure.

This rain is wonderful, exactly what the garden needed. When I dig down deep into the soil it's far too dry. The top few inches of soil hold moisture and keep plants alive, but deeper down it's a different story. And for larger, more established trees and shrubs, it's the level of moisture deeper in the soil which determines these plants' health or otherwise. So heavy rain, in my books, is a welcome tonic for all the older inmates in my plant asylum.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Spring's prettiest weeds

I have no-one to blame but myself for some of the weed problems here in my garden. At least this is a pretty problem and also not an especially bad one. Whether I like it or not, spring is a time when a variety of flowers pop up uninvited. And every one of these 'pretty weeds of spring' were originally brought home by me from a garden centre.

First, some introductions. This is Ingrid, our quiche, pie and flan gnome. Her little flower companions go by a couple of names – heartsease and Johnny Jump-Up – but essentially they're a form of viola. They come up all around the garden – more often in shady or semi-shady spots.

While the darker coloured heartsease surrounding Ingrid are the most common, other colours occasionally come up from seed, and they're very pretty.

Primulas compete with the Johnny Jump-ups for weed rights in the semi-shade. While the original ones planted were white, all the weedy ones which self-seed every year are these pinky colours.

Here, the primulas seem to be competing with the Johnny Jump-ups for the same square inch of soil. I leave them to it if they aren't bothering anything else. The primulas, being bigger at the base, usually win.

Alyssum is a sun-lover that I plant in pots to decorate my succulent patch, but it's so hardy and self-seedy that it comes up in cracks in the paving. Last autumn I grew a purple coloured alyssum for a change, and I've noticed little patches of purple self-sown alyssum coming up here and there along the pavers, as well as the much more common white form.

It's with some trepidation that I have decided to re-introduce impatiens into the garden. It took me years of very persistent weeding to get rid of the first infestation. I've only ever liked the white form, but the weedy form comes up pink or red, not my favourite flower colours. This plant is in a planter mounted on the back wall of the house, at least three metres from the nearest patch of soil, and while it has dressed up the wall nicely, I'm keeping a close eye on any suspiciously impatiens-like seedlings coming up anywhere else.

The same thing is happening in my poppy patch this year as happened last year. Though I try to be a good boy about deadheading spent flowers, I always miss a few, and that's enough to send up these wonderful looking wild poppies amid all the other poppies. These flowers don't last as long as the cultivated Iceland poppies, but they're always a welcome sight.

If I've included a photo of Ingrid, our flan and quiche gnome, I might as well include one of her love interest, Mitchell, our Librarian gnome. Mitchell is surrounded by a sea of native violets, and these are weeds of a creeping, relentless, invasive sort.

The best I can hope for with native violets is to limit their spread. As these tenacious little groundcover plants like semi shade and well-moistened soil, they occupy the fairly well-watered ground beneath my espaliered lime tree.

It's ironic that 'self-seeding' seems at first to be such a low-maintenance benefit in a plant. "What, you don't even have to plant it, and it just comes up by itself each year? Wonderful."

Unfortunately, the reality is that self-seeding plants also come up here, there and everywhere each year: in pots, in the middle of the vegie patch, in garden beds where you're trying to coax something far more tender and delicate into life (like my poor little easily-bullied cyclamen). You don't just get a couple of self seeding flowers. You get hundreds of them. They can be a pest, just like any other weed.

And so the self-seeders have become just another part of my weeding workload. I pull most of them out when I see the seedlings forming, yet I always also allow the odd one to grow on where they will prove both pretty and harmless. And of course quite a few manage to spring up and flower where I don't want them to, despite my best efforts. I don't really mind. They're as much a part of this garden as I am, in the end. And they're prettier than me.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wandering minstrel

The other morning I was working from home, as usual, when I heard a birdsong that I'd never heard before. I'm used to hearing a fairly wide variety of bird calls here, from various raucous cat-alarm squawks through to loud kookaburra laughs and the sweet, sweet melodies from our big, beautiful black and white magpies. But this new birdsong was very distinctive, very different and quite musical. So I went outside, saw this person sitting on a powerline, then rushed back inside to fetch my camera. As well as having never heard this bird before I knew I had never seen it, either.

It's hard to describe a birdsong in words, but my bird-watching guide which told me this is a figbird suggests that it's a "strong, mellow tu-tu heer, tu-heer". I guess that could be something like it. I agree with the "strong mellow" bit, not sure about the words though, but I won't attempt my own version of it.

More specifically, my Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (by Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight, and it's excellent) says this is an immature male figbird. Once he reaches adulthood that mottled, pale yellow chest will be a striking yellow statement of virility.

The other thing the book says is that Sydney is as almost as far south as figbirds travel. The distribution map says figbirds are found, starting from Nowra in the south, all the way along Australia's East Coast up to the tip of Cape York in tropical far North Queensland, as well as in the Top End of the Northern Territory and in the Kimberley in Western Australia's tropical north. When I mentioned to a couple of far more knowledgable bird enthusiasts that I'd seen a figbird, they said they're not a common sight here at all, so I am glad to have made its acquaintance.

He stayed chirping and posing for the camera for a good 10 minutes, enough time to take a few not-too-sharp pix (these are blown up and cropped a fair bit using the snazzy new easy-cropping tool I have discovered in Photoshop). I can never rely on my memory to identify a new bird well, so I always try to get some photos.

My wife Pam, who is a botanical illustrator, does amazingly rapid sketches of any birds she sees in the garden, noting colours, patches, and all sorts of details I could never hope to remember. In fact, seeing Pam do this has given me quite an insight into her powers of visual observation. I feel almost blind by comparison! Thank goodness for cameras.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Carrot lucky dip

If your carrots come up looking like normal, perfectly formed carrots, then you can afford to say: "I love the way harvesting carrots is like a lucky dip - each time you don't know what you're going to get." But if your carrots come up misshapen, forked, weirdo, then you're probably a lot less delighted by the lucky dip analogy. My most recent mini carrot harvest for dinner had a bit of both, but mostly I got lucky...

For starters, let's be positive and say that almost all of the carrots yanked from their bed turned out like these guys.

My carrot patch is very small, and not in the best vegie-growing spot in the garden, either. But I was determined to improve on my last attempt, which consisted mostly of misshapen weirdos.

The problem is that the little bit of carrot poking above the soil gives you no clue as to what lies beneath. If all goes well the delicious orange root pokes down several more inches and tapers to a lovely point. But if fate in the guise of several possible problems/mistakes intervenes, then you end up with a weirdo.

Hooray! Another completely normal one. I think the secret this year was even better soil preparation than last year (ie, deeper digging and getting a finer tilth to the soil), plus sowing seed directly where the crop is to grow. Last year I used seedlings, and it was only later that I read that carrots don't like being transplanted. And yep, they don't like fresh fertiliser near their forming roots, either.

As pictured earlier, most of the carrots harvested last night were delightfully normal. Well, almost all of them were...

But there had to be one weirdo, didn't there?

However, I can live with this one oddball, as compared with last year's misshapen efforts, this year's are much better. I think the key was sowing seed directly, plus the better soil preparation. Carrots are related to parsnips and also parsley, and all of these plants do much better when grown from seed sown straight into the bed. As my carrot patch didn't enjoy an ideal amount of vegie-growing sunshine (what I might call one of my 'B-grade' patches, OK but not textbook sunny) it's not a bad result.

They'll be turned into a Moroccan-style carrot salad. This one, by Sydney cookery writer Maureen Simpson.

750g carrots, peeled and steamed or boiled until tender

1 small clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chilli
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of sugar
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves
6 fresh dates, finely sliced

You can leave small carrots whole, or cut larger ones into chunks. Steam or boil until tender.
To make the dressing, combine the garlic, paprika, cumin, chilli, lemon juice olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper in a screw-topped jar and shake. Pour over the drained, cooked carrots while they're still warm.
Garnish with the coriander leaves and sliced dates. Serve warm or cold as a side dish.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Frond happenings

Around this time each year, as spring gets into full swing, my bird's nest fern goes about the interesting business of unfurling its new fronds. It's a slightly eerie thing, this fern, the kind of plant that large vego dinosaurs probably munched on, before that errant asteroid ruined everything for them 65 million years ago.

Uncurl, unfurl, traa daa!

Several of them look like a gathering of so many alien elders in a conference of some sort.

The late afternoon light glowing through its fronds distracts your attention from the fact that this oddly fascinating plant also has to occupy one of the worst positions in my garden. It has carried out this assignment for a long time now, without any trouble at all. It's wedged in between my tumbler compost bin and one of my olive trees, in a lot of shade.

Looking down into the plant, you can see how it feeds itself, both here in my garden and in the wild. Here, olive leaves are caught in the centre and, as they slowly turn into compost, the plant gets all the food it needs. In the forest, they usually grow either on the branches of large trees, or on large boulders. Mine is in the ground.

The older adult leaves are quite leathery things, but these fresh, green youngsters remain quite pretty for a month or two.

Here's what I mean about a truly lousy position in the garden. It's shady, hidden from view by a murraya hedge, and crowded with other foliage plants, including several other ferns.

The botanical name of my bird's nest fern is Asplenium australasicum, and that second part of its name confirms that it is an Australian native fern, of which there are numerous species that populate our many shady forest gullies around the continent. This is probably the most commonly grown native fern in gardens, so common that a lot of people don't realise that it's a native.

If you have a rotten spot where nothing seems to thrive, and where the wide-spreading habit of this plant wouldn't be a bother, give a bird's nest fern a try. I've read that they don't like frosts much, though, but as that isn't a problem here in Sydney my bird's nest fern and I have been happy companions for years now, and I am sure that will remain the case for many more years to come as well.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Patiently seedy

Many of my fellow bloggers inspire me to try new things, or at least to think again about the approach I'm taking in my garden. Michelle at From Seed to Table often inspires me to try growing all sorts of things from seed in my food garden. While she's a wonderful food gardener her influence has extended to my flower garden, and right now I'm trying to grow zinnias from seed I have saved from last summer's plantings.

Here's one of the two patches from last year, in the colours I want to plant again this year: whites, yellows and oranges. The other patch had a fair bit of pink and red in it, and they're just not the flower colours I want or need here. This plant is Zinnia angustifolia, which is a lowish-growing (to 30cm/1 foot tall), widish spreading (70cm/2 feet) zinnia. There's another type of zinnia that's commonly grown here, but it's a much taller growing plant (75cm tall at least) and its colours border on lurid, especially the pinks.

Once the zinnias faded in autumn after a long flower show that started in early summer, I let them fade a bit more then cut off all the orange flowers and put them in one brown paper bag, and all the white flowers went into another brown paper bag. Then they spent a quiet winter hanging around in my garden shed.

A few weeks ago, the weather looked like it was warming up for spring and so I took down the bags to check out the contents. Having never before collected many flower seeds, and no zinnias at all, I wasn't sure what to expect, but it looked like there were hundreds of seeds there.

The dried flower heads themselves were noisy to handle, crinkly-dry as can be.

And for that matter, they were as brittle as can be, too. Just the lightest crumble in my fingers and they fell apart.

The result was about 50:50 chaff and seeds, and not knowing any better way to clear the chaff, I quietly and patiently picked it out with my fingers. Thank goodness for interesting radio shows (in this case 'The Music Show', Radio National, Saturday mornings 10-12, with Andrew Ford) – they make drudgery much easier to get through.

The zinnia seeds are distinctly darker than the chaff. I was hoping for plump seeds, but they're a bit scrawny, but not knowing what to expect all I could do was forge on regardless. For all I know they could be either perfectly normal or shockingly malnourished. Only time will tell.

Seed-raising HQ: my super-cheap mini greenhouses, each less than 10 bucks at Bunnings. The little sliders in the lids let you adjust the air flow.

I filled several old seedling punnets with seed-raising mix and, for insurance, added two seeds per cell. I then lightly sprinkled over just enough seed-raising mix to barely cover them, then watered them in well with a spray mist. Marker tabs in so I know which colour is which, greenhouse lids on, off to a brightly lit spot out of all direct sunshine. Waiting... waiting...

Babies! The first came up after about 10 days, and for a while I was a panicky parent, with only about a quarter of the seeds coming up. "So they were scrawny" I first thought, with a pang of guilt. But the weather here these last two weeks has been horribly cold for spring, and just these last couple of days things have warmed up a bit. And more seeds are coming up all the time. The germination rate is up to about two-thirds of the number of seeds sown, which will provide me with more plants than I need. Not guilty, your honour!

As for what I need, I'd like lots of these white ones, please.

And plenty of these oranges and yellows, too.

But none of these pink ones, though. And it's not just a boy thing, either. My wife Pam isn't a hot pink girl, either. She loves all sorts of greens, and colours in earthy tones, plus apricots, blues, yellows, lavenders, wine-reds and, if it has to be pink it's down the dusky end of the spectrum.

Now the next phase of the operation is of course raising the babies to become a gaggle of healthy youngsters over the next few weeks, then waiting for signs of colour in their flower buds to see how true they're coming up from seed. I'll report in sometime in December I suspect.

However, the best part about this little project for me is that it's the very opposite experience of that modern ailment, instant gratification. This has been a long, slow process which has stretched out, in its own leisurely way, for many months, and it has several weeks more to go before the first flowers appear. In an important little way this 'zinnias from saved seed' project has taught me (well, maybe just reminded me) that growing anything from seed is patience yielding its own very special rewards. I want to do more of this.