Thursday, April 29, 2010

Purple monsters

You can imagine our excitement when our newly planted baby shrub popped out its first flower. In this case it's one of Pammy's shrubs, her Tibouchina 'Groovy Baby' which we planted only a few weeks ago. But wait on, what are those holes in the flower? And who's that wriggling around on the anthers?

Of course, it's the purple flower munching monster, disguised as a caterpillar. He/she probably is also responsible for the nifty holes in the petals. These are caused by the purple flower monster drilling down into the flower bud for a feed, before the whole thing unfurls.

Tatty swiss-cheese flowers and purple monsters couldn't put a dampener on our excitement. The little tibouchina is roaring along, sending out new leaves. The weather right now is as autumnally perfect as you could possibly wish for here in Sydney, and as the plant obviously wants to do some growing, I treated it to a gourmet feed. As for any other purple monsters wanting to attack our baby, be warned, we're on the lookout for you guys!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Moving Heaven & some earth

It was nice to pretend that I was operating the weather levers while Huey had the weekend off. In control over the weather dial, I seemed to be. Some rain on Sunday, not too much, about 9mm did the job nicely, weakening the weeds' grip on the soil while readying everything else for planting the next day.

And then I set the weather dial to very fine and very mild on digging and planting day, Monday (Aussies got a long weekend too, in honour of all those who served in wars for us – Anzac Day). Warm but not hot 22°C, no clouds, blue skies, perfect gardening weather. Hmmmm, autumn in Sydney...

The colour of our sky was the first thing I noticed when I returned from living in Europe for a year, quite a few years ago. Since then, I don't take our wonderful blue sky for granted anymore.

When I started digging I came across lots and lots of my best farm workers, like this person, who was not at all thrilled to meet me. While I mulch most of my garden pretty well most of the time, there were a few patches which I had deliberately decided not to mulch over the last few months, and in those spots worm numbers were well down, compared to the mulched areas. If you want worms, mulch!

After all the weeding, which doesn't warrant a photo, and turning of the clods of soil with a fork, which I forgot to take a photo of, the next step was much more fun – turning the clods and clumps of soil into a fine tilth ready for planting. For this task I always rely on my trusty Japanese Niwashi, which I have blogged about before here. It's my favourite job too, because I get to sit down on the ground and contentedly plug away at the soil until it's right. Deep down, I love my drudgery. It's good quality thinking time.

Rake level, ready for planting. Doesn't that sound easy? Perhaps I should add that all the weeding, digging, tilling and raking took up the first three or so hours of that glorious, sunny but mild Monday.

My excellent gardening adviser Geoffrey told me to not plant my brodiaeas too early – wait until Anzac Day – and so they have been chilling out in the crisper section of my fridge for the last two months. Monday was planting day for these blue-flowered spring bulbs.

For the last two years I've grown poppies for Pammy, who just loves these blooms. The first year I grew them from seed, and the results were pretty good. In the second year I used seedlings, and the results were much better, with more stout stems. So it was seedlings for sure this year.

Instead of doing my usual 'grow from seed' method with shallots, I bought a punnet of seedlings, to save time, which is what punnets are very good for. However, I sowed seeds galore in several other spots, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what comes up.

This is a photo I pinched from Google Images of one of the seeds I sowed. Nigella, or love-in-a-mist. I grew this flower many years ago and really liked its old-fashioned charm, and so I thought I'd sow a packet of seeds this year. As well as the Nigella I sowed some seeds of mesclun mixed lettuce, coriander, spinach, calendulas, baby beetroot, curly parsley, Chinese buck choy and another Asian green called celery leaf plant, which is a celery relative with all that celery flavour, except that it's very leafy, and the stems are thin. Should be useful in cooking, and yes, it was an impulse buy at a seed stand.

A while back I had made a careful garden plan, and then on planting day I didn't follow it. I did what I usually do: I laid out all the punnets and seed packets where I planned to plant them, and then had a think. My other great garden adviser, Don, calls this method 'put and look'. As a garden design tool, it works. Once consultations with Pammy were done and we both agreed that this is what we wanted (after adjustments), away I went with the fun bit, planting.

Poppy seedlings in, 20cm apart. The black strip on the right is my special 50:50 mix of potting mix and home-made compost, into which I sow seeds. That strip is a parsley border in the making. I love parsley borders. The rear strip running at right angles is mesclun lettuce. The seemingly bare, unmulched bed behind is where the brodiaeas went in. The rest of the planting was not all that photogenic, just seed sowing direct to the ground, but it was good fun nevertheless and the next few weeks promise to be enthralling (if you're weird like me and love watching seeds come up).

And that was about it for the weekend. There are a few parts of the garden that remain happily productive. Another batch of lettuce is at picking size, the sage behind is having such a good autumn that it still thinks it's summer, and an early pot of coriander raised from seed saved from last year's crop is nicely leafy, ready to add its flavour to both cooked dishes and salads.

The real highlight of the day for me was the sheer luxury of spending a whole day in the garden again. I've been so busy with work lately that I haven't had much time for gardening (apart from watering) or blogging. And so thank you Huey up there in heaven for laying on such a wonderful day to be outside just moving some earth and planting seeds and seedlings.

Now, if I could have that weather dial back for a moment, could I set it to steady 22s for the next few weeks, with goodly, soaking showers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? There's a good chap, Huey. Thanks so much.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Slimming down

I love those ‘before & after’ photos in the diet ads, especially those hopelessly unrealistic ones where it’s two completely different people doing the before-ing and after-ing. I won’t lie to you: this isn’t me, but this is how I feel, already.

So far I have lost 4 kilos. There’s still one more kilo to go before I hit my first target of a 5 kilo loss, and another 5 kilos more beyond that till I’m truly back in normal, healthy, 50-something male shape (and the weight I was pretty consistently from age 30 to 50).

And guess what, during my daily walkies I’ve been thinking a little on how diets succeed and fail, and I thought I’d share my few grams of understanding here today. So, here are my three golden rules of how to stay on your diet and reach your personal target.

1. Don’t listen to the advice of friends

This is a biggie. All diet advice from friends will be of the sort which preaches just a bit more fanaticism than you’re currently practising: ie, why giving up that yummy spoonful of sugar in your coffee/tea really adds up; why a particular cardboard-like crispbread is better than the nice-tasting one you’re eating right now; and why whatever exercise you’re doing is not quite gruelling enough to have any effect. When you listen to them, you hasten the day you give up your diet. They are devils trying to make you fail.

2. Don’t listen to the advice of health experts

This is an equivalent size biggie to number one. Health experts are usually thin and often young, and mistakenly believe it’s all their careful eating and exercising which makes them thin, when the simple fact is that being young, or thinness genes, or both, is mostly what keeps them thin. They also read too much. They will find your exercise regime worthy of a smirk, and nothing more. They will recommend even more bland, vile eating options than your friends can think up. They are devils trying to make you fail. All their advice is destined to hasten the end of your dieting efforts through the crushing boredom of bland food and exercise-related injury. Whatever you do, don’t pay them. It only encourages them.

3. Don’t eat or drink anything you hate

This might even be bigger than 1 and 2, which makes it VERY BIG. Never sigh that sigh of “oh well I guess I’d better eat/drink this bland tosh” during a diet. Take that thought as a warning sign that the end of your diet is nigh! Bland ‘diet’ food is just another devil trying to make you fail. Healthy food with good flavour is out there in abundance, and that’s your assignment: find a real variety of it, then eat and enjoy to your heart’s content.

And so that’s what I’ve learned so far. Listen to no-one. Do your own thing. Go for quality and variety, not quantity. And never ever eat or drink something you don’t like. Works for me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

From little things big things grow

"You're not going through with this thing?" Geoffrey asked in a not particularly encouraging way. "Maybe, maybe not" I said, trying to sound inscrutable and wise, while secretly feeling just a little bit foolish. What prompted his doubts was my success in getting some Gymea lily seeds to come up. Yippeee! But Geoffrey is right in a sense. It will take this plant eight years to flower, and as he pointed out "It's an enormous plant, where will you put the thing?" What do you mean 'an enormous plant?', I have three of them! They'll be three enormous plants. As the great song by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody says: "From little things, big things grow..."

Here's the reason for all the excitement. A baby Gymea lily (Doryanthes excelsa). I sowed the seeds back on February 25 and blogged about it here. The first glimmer of success appeared last week, roughly seven weeks after sowing.

I had no idea how deep to plant the seeds, so I sowed six pots: two with seeds almost sitting on the soil surface, covered by a scant 1mm depth of potting mix, two with seeds about 6mm deep, and two with seeds about 12-15mm deep. It turns out the shallow option is the way to go. In this photo, the seed on the right has come to attention, pushed up by the teeniest, tinyest little white shoot underneath.

Since the first guy came up, two more have done the same, and they seem to be growing well so far. So that means one of the 6mm deep seeds has also made it to the surface.

Not that I'm blaming her, but it's all Pam's fault. She brought this seed pod home from one of her botanical illustrating courses and casually suggested I might have a go at growing them. The chances of me saying "oh no, I couldn't possibly do that" were zero, zilch, nil. Not a chance, baby. But I have shocked myself by actually getting the things to grow. Seed-raising is always such a fresh, new thrill, each and every time.

This is the bit where Sensible Geoffrey does have a point. That clump of spiky leaves (in a local park) is about 1.5m tall, and the flower stems often reach 3m tall, and the biggies go to 5m or more. And did I mention that with seed-raised plants you have to wait eight years for flowers? These plants won't be flowering for another month or three, as a huge flower head 30-40cm across, chockers with lilies and nectar, is yet to form atop the stalks.

Fortunately, there's no rush with my seedlings. It's not as if they're going to become unmanageably huge this year, or even next. Maybe even sometime soon I'll come across a friend with a large, bare garden who wistfully says they'd love at least three enormous clumps of spiky leaves topped by three-metre-tall giant lilies. People are often saying things like that, aren't they? Whatever, the seeds are up, I am aglow with delight, and I have time on my hands until the troubles begin.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Stage fright

Thank goodness that's over. Stage fright. In front of a live audience. Talking. Worse still, being asked questions. And yet somehow we survived. The good thing was that I wasn't alone. I had my good mate Tracy, our magazine's cookery whizz, along to share in the whole stage fright experience with me. A pair of newbies, and we managed all right. Although I talked too much (not the first time that's happened, won't be the last, either). Sorry, Tracy!

This is what I mean. There's a home-show style of event happening in Sydney now called 30 Days of Home & Entertaining, and our magazine set up the 'garden' component out in the former car park. Included in the garden is a little stage for talks and demos, etc. This is its first weekend of opening, and yesterday Tracy and I were one of the opening acts on Day One. The 12.30 show, then the same show again at 2.30. Tracy made and cooked yummy Thai-style chicken skewers, while I talked about growing coriander and limes. During the show, caterers came out with trays of skewers cooked to Tracy's recipe for the audience to munch on. There's nothing like a free feed to keep audiences happy! If you want the recipe (and the coriander growing tips), they're here.

In a moment I'll show you the 'before' shot of the area we set up, but this is it before the gates opened. Haybale seats with cushion covers, huge potted fig trees laden with fruit, hundreds of French lavenders in bloom, olive trees, surprisingly realistic fake grass, even a chook shed with Silkie chooks in the corner. It looked really pretty, a credit to the design and construction team, especially Nic, the guy in charge of construction, and Don, who came up with the design concept.

Here's that chook shed with its gaggle of chooks. During our talk one of them even laid an egg and started clucking loudly about her achievement. How farmyard can you get! It doesn't say much for my talk, but I think the chook laying its egg was the highlight of that hour.

Here and there were espaliered citrus trees. In this corner, a Eureka lemon, in another a wrinkly, thorny Thai makrut lime. There were huge galvanised iron tanks filled with soil and planted out with vegies, and other pots filled with water were planted with taro and water chestnuts. Everywhere you looked there was something interesting growing.

This is the 'before' shot. A week before the show, it was the warehouse parking lot, with an ugly electrical transformer down one end. The ground is lumpy, sort of slopes right to left. Seeing this grim looking starting point, the final result is even more admirable.

This is Bruce the Chook Expert, who followed us, and there's nothing Bruce doesn't know about chooks. Behind him in the purple shirt is Christine, the person who makes things happen. She's a producer, organiser, fixer of problems, can do woman extraordinaire. Needless to say she made sure Tracy and I stayed on schedule and turned a nervous first-timer's bout of Stage Fright into pretty good fun in the end.

The audiences weren't that big, less than 50 people each time, and they were lovely. All of them were into their herb, fruit and vegie growing and had good questions that lasted all the way to the end of our allotted time, God bless 'em.

On the right you can see those big galvanised steel vegie tanks I mentioned earlier. They looked really good overflowing with salad greens and herbs.

And hopefully I won't have to ever do any more live performances on stage again! It all actually went quite well, and Christine said we did OK, so that's all that matters in the end.

Final footnote: for the first time ever on my blog, all photos are brought to you by mobile phone. Most are mine, but naturally enough the photos of Tracy and me onstage come from Christine's iPhone. They're getting better, these mobile phone cameras!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mushie weather

You won't have much trouble getting most Sydney folk to agree that autumn is the nicest time of year here. The worst of summer is over, but the ground is still warm. Mornings and evenings are cool, so you sleep well, but the days are mostly very nice, in the 20s, lovely gardening, walking and being-outside weather. But autumn can get quite rainy at times, and in the last week that's what it has been. Rainy, or at least showery. And that means the mushrooms are popping up here, there and everywhere.

Down the back of the garden, where this green-leaved former pot plant of Pam's is slowly unfurling its plan to take over the world, this delicate little trio of mushrooms popped up under the protective cover of the new regime.

Pam discovered them (she has eagle eyes) and said they looked like three delicate little parachutes gliding down to land – and she's right.

Across the other side of the path several other kinds of mushies were popping up. In fact, no two fungi seemed to be alike – they're amazingly diverse. This blobby, bald-headed mushie came up around the sides of one of my favourite gnomes.

This is Tran, he likes to watch. He is a slow-mover, the perfect companion for a mushroom to snuggle up to.

I think it's the fact that I always keep the mulch topped up that makes the garden so mushie-friendly after a week of regular showers. The nice bit is that I don't have to do a thing. They just come up all by themselves, last a day at the most usually, and then they're gone, until the next showery week. A bit like fairies in the garden, only mushy. Now you see them, now you don't.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My short-term future

Barring the possibility of random meteor strike from outer space and other unexpected bummers, I have a fairly good idea about at least a small part of my short-term future. Lots more salads. I'm on a diet.

I'll have to get a bit more energetic than this, as this is actually a photo of a pot of mixed lettuce from last year. But my current crops of lettuce are all uninspiring baby seedlings set against a background of dull, brown earth, and they wouldn't do to illustrate this little blog posting which is a bit more about weight loss than it is about gardening (although we are back into prime salad greens growing weather for the next couple of months).

I have known for at least a year that I was carrying too much weight. My doctor told me, for one thing, but she's one of those tall, healthy, clever Whippets who has no credibility at all when talking to the overweight. What I needed was some inspiration closer to home.

The first dose came last week, when Pam and I got together with an old female friend of mine (not a girlfriend) who is only a year younger than me yet looks 20 years younger and is still in great shape. In her case that's thanks to lots of Salsa dancing (and presumably chasing all those young Latin lads around the dance floor).

The next, and decisive, dose of motivation felled me. I was shopping, buying clothes, trying them on in the changing rooms at David Jones, a major department store in the city. I am sure they install special unflattering lighting in those rotten change rooms full of mirrors. It wasn't so much Baywatch as Whalewatch. Enough! Enough! I give in. OK, I'll diet, I'll lose weight.

I've done it before (ie, lost 10 kilos in a few months, then put it all back on over the next two years). And I'll do it again...

And so that's why I think a photo of salads is appropriate. I'll be eating more of them I am sure, but that's no hassle as I've always enjoyed a good salad. The problem for me is that I also enjoy a good bottle of wine, a roast of lamb or beef or pork or chicken, lots of potatoes, all sorts of vegies cooked all sorts of ways, plus bacon, cheese, pate... this list of sins never ends.

And so here's my magic diet, which has worked well before, and I hope works just as well again.

1. Healthy breakfast, every day.
2. Healthy lunch, every day.
3. Whatever I like for dinner if I cook it myself (or Pam cooks), but if I eat out I stay on alert for the healthiest option.
4. The only snacks in between meals are fruit.
5. No more than 2 glasses of wine on any one day, and a couple of grog-free days a week thrown into the mix as well.
6. Daily walkies, at least half an hour, preferably more. Not strolling. Proper walkies. (I get asthma if I run further than 25 metres, so I'm a walkies boy.)
7. Tell people you're dieting, as with secretive dieting it's far too easy to surreptitiously decide to go 'bust' without anyone knowing you busted!

My first target is to lose 5 kilos, but I really need to lose 10 kilos to get my weight down to a truly healthy level for my height.

I'm sure carrying less weight will have a miraculous effect on my back problems. It's not a dodgy back I have, it's a dodgy front!

And so that's my short-term future. Lots of salads, more exercise, avoiding saturated fats, eating more fruit. At my age, this is actually all about my long-term future, too.

Friday, April 2, 2010

That's groovy, baby

Sydney's summers are very prettily bookended with purple showers. In spring (November usually) backyards throughout the city shimmer with the pale-purple blooms of magnificent, spreading jacaranda trees. And now, in autumn, it's the turn of the tibouchinas to provide a similar carnival of colour to farewell the summer. You can find tibouchinas in bloom in virtually every street here right now, and their version of purple is a stronger, bolder, more tropical hue, and the plants themselves are a fair bit smaller than the stately jacarandas.

The problem for me is that until now, I have run out of space in my garden and don't have anywhere to plant a tibouchina, but now all that has changed. A very small dwarf form has just been launched on the market, and I just planted one this morning. And my darling wife Pammy is so very pleased about all this, as it's another one of 'her' plants in our garden.

If some of you are saying to yourself "Tibouchina, never heard of them" perhaps their former name of Lasiandra might ring a bell? Like the jacarandas, tibouchinas are also originally from South America, but they are very much at home here in Sydney's warm climate, and they love things to get even warmer, thriving all along the subtropical coastline up to Brisbane and beyond. When in bloom, the trees are virtually covered in these simple, open blooms which are about two to three inches across.

This one belongs to my neighbour across the road and it's the typical size you see here, about 3-5 metres tall on average, but some species can grow a fair bit bigger, say 8-10 metres, in an ideal spot.

While jacarandas are a popular street tree in many cities and towns here in Australia and also overseas (eg, Pretoria in South Africa), tibouchinas are not used so often in this way, but about two suburbs away from me there is one street lined with tibouchinas, and this is how it looked this morning. It's no wonder Pammy likes these plants, but we just don't have space for even one extra 4 metre tall tree. And then I worked on an article in our magazine about the new dwarf tibouchinas, and when Pam saw little 'Groovy Baby', that was it. We were getting one.

This is such a new release that it's only coming out in limited numbers this autumn, and more are scheduled to be produced in time for next spring. In fact, none of our local nurseries had even heard of it, but I tracked down the supplier, spoke to the sales guy, gave his details to our local nursery, waited two weeks, paid $10.95 for it on Thursday, and I planted it today.

'Groovy Baby' promises to grow just 60cm (two feet) tall and 80cm wide, but I don't trust or believe plant labels, and so I am hoping it might even stretch to 80cm tall and 1m wide if I look after it very well. There are other dwarf tibouchinas around here in Australia, such as 'Jules' which reaches about 1 metre tall (but often exceeds that) and the new Jazzie and Carol Lyn, both of which are a bit larger than Jules (about 1.5 to 2m). All of them would be too big for the spot I have available.

Planting was easy, but I do have one or two little planting tips for shrubs which might be useful to someone about to plant a shrub or tree.
1. Don't add anything to the planting hole: no fertiliser, no compost, nothing. Sometimes too much fertiliser can burn tender young plant roots, but at other times an over-fertilised planting hole simply stops the roots from growing down and out in search of food. If roots are already surrounded by food, why go elsewhere?
2. The ideal size for a planting hole is the same depth of the pot's root ball (in this case about 6-8 inches) but at least twice as wide as the pot's root ball. So, don't dig too deep but by all means loosen all the soil around the plant, get rid of rocks, weeds etc.
3. Don't cover over the existing root-ball's soil surface with any more soil. Try to get the plant into the ground so its soil surface is the same as the surrounding soil.

Having managed all that, I watered the plant in well with a watering can mixture of a seaweed solution (in this case, Seasol), then I mulched the whole area. I won't be feeding the plant at all until it shows some signs of growth. At that point I'll give it some slow-release fertiliser. It has a few flower buds on it, so we're hoping for a early splotch or two of purple from our little 'Groovy Baby'.

And right now, when I say 'little' I mean teeny weeny. When it grows up it's going to fill that space, and so my job will be to regularly trim back the ever-encroaching grevillea on the left, and the thyme motherlode that's just barely visible on the right, to give Groovy Baby the space to get going.

Autumn is probably the very best time to plant things here in Sydney. It's a mild season and the soil is warm, so plants settle in well. Later on, our winters are mercifully mild and so by the time spring comes around I am hoping Groovy Baby will really get growing, and by this time next year Pammy will finally have that dazzling purple patch she has waited for so long.