Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Morning bloomshine

I wandered outside this morning, camera in hand, planning to get some more photos of the flowers on my succulents for an upcoming post on them. But I was so distracted, captivated is more like it, by some of the other flowers in bloom now that here I am blogging about them instead.

The star turn right now is Pam's dark-leafed pelargonium. You can barely see the leaves not only because they're so dark but also because of the covering of dazzling pinky-salmon blooms. "It needs repotting" says she who owns the plant, to he who has to keep it happy. Not until if finishes flowering, Pammy, and that won't be for a while.

I blog on so often about the poppy patch that I feel like I must be boring everyone silly, but it's such a source of pleasure here. They've been blooming for months now, and they won't stop for at least another month at least. Here's one that's only minutes from popping, next to a self-sown 'wild' one (these always show up during the last month or so of each poppy season).

Deep inside each poppy bloom is a lolly shop for bees. While bees usually just dab their paws to get some pollen from other blooms, I often see bees actually rolling around in the wide dishes of poppy pollen and covering their whole bodies in fluffy yellow dust. They look like they're in a delirium of pleasure.

Looking into the wild poppy reveals complexity and mystery aplenty.

If it's possible for the sage flowers to look better than they did two days ago, when I last blogged about them, then they do.

Twin throats of sage are ready for insecty visits.

While I'm admiring purpley-blue blooms, I might as well toss in yet another flower of our newish Tibouchina 'Groovy Baby', which started blooming in late autumn and is still at it in early spring. This is a new dwarf tibouchina which grows only 60cm tall, and so far it has been utterly prolific with the flowers, and it has also managed to grow a bit too.

Well, sometime soon I'll finish the photos I need for that succulent flower posting, but as for what to blog about next, I voted with my camera lens. I blame Pam's pelargonium for starting it. It really is dazzling right now. It's a plant she brought back from the Florafest Festival in 2009, and while it looked quite nice back then it has really come into its own this year. That happens with some plants. They take a year or two in their new home before they announce to the world "hey, I like it here."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

We're having lunch with some friends today and Pam had a lovely idea for a little gift for our hostess, the charming and beautiful Zora: a posy of poppies, plus a bunch of fresh herbs from the garden – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And as two of these classic herbs are in bloom now, and the other two just powering along as usual, it's time I celebrated these worthy runners-up in this year's Herb of the Year awards.

The sage is in full bloom now and looking better than ever (click on the photo to make it look bigger). And I mean 'better than ever'. It seems to me that each year this herb is liking its sunny home more and more. In previous years after it finishes flowering it has always looked exhausted, and so I cut it back, and it bounces back. But the year it's just looking great in leaf and the flower show seems better than ever. I can take no credit for this improvement, either. I never feed it and never water it. Whatever falls from the sky waters it, and whatever fertiliser run-off which flows down from nearby plants is all the food it gets.

While I was griping recently about holes in my parsley borders, other sections of the border are belting along in the spring warmth. This looks a bit scrappy just because I keep on cutting off handfuls to use in the kitchen. And it looks a bit dense and lush because I keep on cutting off handfuls to use in the kitchen (get my drift?).

Stately rosemary rises high and has just finished flowering, but apart from that it's looking and smelling wonderful.

I was just lucky, I guess, but the plant I bought at the nursery about 10 years ago is an oily one. You can feel the oil in your hands as you harvest some more, and the scent given off by this rich rosemary oil is heaven. The only trick is never to use too much of it in cooking – it's powerful stuff!

The thyme is in full bloom this morning as well. Fortunately there are some little sections here and there where I can harvest just the leaves for Pam's posy, but most of it is in bloom, and as I've mentioned a few times before here, most of the plant is sitting on top of the pavers, not on top of soil. I guess my pavers are a pretty good substitute for the rocky boulders on sunny Mediterranean hillsides where thyme likes to grow in the wild.

I have virtually given up trying to photograph thyme flowers. They are so tiny that they always look like clouds, rather than flowers. I guess that isn't so bad, as they do look like clouds of colour when you're standing next to them. They have a pinky tinge, but I'm not sure if they have a scent, as the scent of the thyme leaves is what intoxicates you as soon as you come close.

So we're looking forward to this lunch with Zora and her partner Sean. They don't live far away, and so we're catching the bus to see them. If you're on the 423 from Marrickville into Newtown this afternoon and see two passengers cradling bunches of poppies and fragrant herbs, don't worry, it's just a mad old gardener and his gorgeous wife on their way to a lovely barbecue in the spring sunshine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Herb of the Year

Well, it's my herb of the year, simply because I've really come to appreciate chervil so much more in these last 12 months. It's not as if 'Herb of the Year' is any sort of official title. Chervil is just Herb of the Year here in Amateur Land.

The citation would read something along the lines of: "For services rendered making bland vegies such as zucchinis (courgettes) so much more interesting; for growing in those semi-shaded spots where hardly any other herbs grow; for looking pretty in pots; and for being easy to grow from seed." I hereby award chervil with this barely prestigious award. All the other herbs are jealous, of course. Basil is such a prima donna sometimes!

For this little blog posting I plan to celebrate this fine little herb, with a recipe at the end, of course. Here is a crop from last year, looking very nice in a glazed green bowl.

I have something else going in that nice green bowl, so to stop chervil getting a big head as a result of its recent HOTY award, I have consigned it to a humble terracotta bowl this time round. Last Saturday I sowed up a pot of chervil seeds (on the left), along with yet another batch of good old rocket seeds. By the way, Australian readers, that Italian 'Franchi' packet of chervil seeds contains about one zillion seeds and only costs $4.50 ordered online from The Italian Gardener, a seed shop based in Wollongong. These super-generous Italian seed packets are great value, so if you have several friends who'd like some seeds of all sorts of vegies and herbs, order one packet of each and there will be plenty for everyone. It's a shop well worth checking out (and, of course, this is not a paid commercial – I paid for my seeds).

This is what chervil seeds look like. Long, dark and thin.

I didn't really intent to sow them so thickly, but no harm done. The germination rate isn't 100%, and I'll just thin out the seedlings (with tweezers) in two or three weeks' time.

After scattering the seed I cover them with a fine layer of seed-raising mix (I know seed-raising mix isn't available in some countries, so any very fine, sandy potting mix is roughly the same thing). The layer of seed-raising mix is just barely enough to cover the seeds. Water in with a very fine, light spray of water, then leave the pot in a well-lit spot away from full sun. Germination takes about 10-14 days, depending on the weather.

The first leaves are long and fine, like the seeds, so it's the second and subsequent sets of leaves which start to look like chervil. Once it's growing well, I keep it happy with an organic liquid feed once a month. I use anything that has plenty of nitrogen in it (there are lots of those to choose from these days). Here in Australia, Nitrosol, Seafeed 3-in-1, and all the other fish emulsions fit that bill.

The foliage is a bit like a cross between parsley and coriander, although it's most like curly parsley which has been uncurled, if you know what I mean. The flavour is very mildly aniseedy. Some say that it's 'delicate' but I think that is almost synonymous with 'boring', so I'll stick with 'mildly aniseedy' thanks.

Just for the record, chervil does produce flowers at the end of its season (it's a short-lived herb, like parsley, coriander, basil, dill, etc). Each batch of chervil provides a pretty good supply of leaves for about three to four months on average. Then I sow another pot.

There are two great things about chervil worth concluding with. The first is that it's a food plant which does well in semi-shade. The full blast of Sydney's summer sun all day is too fierce for it. If I can, I grow it in spots which get lots of morning sun, but no afternoon sun.

The other great thing about chervil is its flavour, especially in our case the way it has made bland-ish vegies such as zucchinis (courgettes) and other watery squash-type vegies interesting. So, it's on with the recipe!

Zucchinis with chervil
Serve this as a vegetable side dish.

4 zucchinis (courgettes)
knob of butter
black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped chervil

1. Grate all four zucchinis using a cheese grater. Sprinkle with salt, mix together with a fork, and let the zucchinis shed some liquid with the salt for a while (eg, 20 minutes or half an hour).
2. Next, rinse the zucchini of the salt under running water, and let it drain off the excess water in a colander.
3. Heat a knob of butter over gentle heat in a saucepan, add the grated zucchini and let it slowly cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking. Don't add any more salt, but add as much or as little ground black pepper as you wish. It's hard to overcook the zucchini over gentle heat, so the timing isn't that important.
4. Just before serving, sprinkle the chervil over and mix through. Serve straight away.
The chervil becomes the star in this recipe, with the zucchini just the chorus.

Chervil of course has many other uses. It's great with egg dishes such as scrambled eggs. You can stir chopped chervil into a mayonnaise to serve beside all sorts of fish dishes. In fact you could sprinkle chopped chervil straight over Atlantic Salmon and you'll be glad you did so. It's also worth a try over steamed chat potatoes. And some chervil leaves added to a tossed green salad will have the foodies asking "what's that lovely herb?". And you can answer "Oh, that's the 2010 Herb of the Year, chervil".

Monday, September 20, 2010

Different strokes

They're doing it again. Lots of plants are flowering. Well, it is spring and so that's to be expected, but every year they manage to do it slightly differently, and so I thought I'd just point my camera at a couple of them, to show the many lovely and different ways you can go about being a flower.

For starters you could just try being enormous. That usually works a treat.

And when you do clusters of enormous blooms in long, arching sprays, you'll probably get a standing ovation. It's no wonder orchids are so popular, and here in Sydney's warm but not quite subtropical climate, cymbidium orchids are as tough as old boots, even if they do look as pretty as a party frock.

Another great option for flowers is to smell delicious and then bear delicious fruits later on. This is my Eureka lemon, doing it again and again.

Another option is to flower in symphony with your cousins, and so the fragrant, delicious Tahitian lime is also flowering at the same time as its lemony cousin.

If you're a succulent, a good option is to be a bit quirky and strange, such as these Gasteria flowers, whose stalks rise 30-60cm above the plant and catch the morning sun. I am sure I have seen some cooling summer ice-creams in that red, cream and green colour scheme?

Finally, you could be cute and fascinating even before you flower. I just love the nodding heads of Iceland poppies, which look to me like so many people in a meeting. I am sure that their little meeting passed a resolution to do the right thing and flower sometime tomorrow afternoon. These wonderful plants have been flowering since mid July and they might even set a new Amateur Land record by flowering until the end of October.

Sydney is an evergreen land, a lucky place to be a gardener where there is something happening every moment of the year. But we do still have our colourful burst of growth and flower colour each spring. I'm patiently waiting for three different blue-flowered beauties to do their thing next month, in October, but in the meantime the current carnival of colour provides more than enough entertainment.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Parsley in a Jiffy

Oh drat! Some of the flat-leaf parsley border is going to seed, rapidly, and so that means a few gaps in the line of plants need to be filled. But I have a cunning plan this time round.

Seedy parsley, fine of leaf, getting taller by the day, ready to flower, useless in the kitchen anymore. Yank it out, toss it on the compost heap, then start up some new plants. That's the problem. I never find parsley seedlings do all that well here. They start of well for the first few weeks then the first hot day they cark it.

Parsley definitely does better when started from seed. That's easy enough if I dig up a whole bed of it and sow a row of seed, but plugging gaps in an existing parsley border is more of a problem to get the babies established from seed in amongst the adults (and the weeds). That's where my cunning plan came into being. If I use Jiffy pots to start the parsley seedlings, I don't need to 'unpot' them and transplant the seedlings. I can just pop the seedling in its Jiffy pot in the ground and it should grow on, none the wiser that it has just been transplanted. Well, that's the theory.

I've known about Jiffy pots (deydrated compressed peat pots) ever since my student days in the early 70s, when various flatmates took up marijuana growing, and they invariably started up their illegal crops with good old Jiffies. The packaging is snazzier now, but the product is the same as ever.

They're a bit expensive: 24 Jiffies for about $8. I could make up my own biodegradable pots from simple newspaper, but Origami and I have never been on speaking, or folding, terms.

Like magic, just add water and the packet says they'll swell to seven times their original height.

One minute in and there's action aplenty.

Five minutes later and several are ready, but there's a few stragglers.

After about 10 minutes they're ready to go. "They look like little chocolate puddings," chimed in Pam as she wandered past.

My plan is to sow three plants notorious for hating being transplanted as seedlings: flat-leaf parsley, curly parsley and dill.

I haven't mastered the art of doing photography with my new microscope yet, but these parsley seeds are heavily ridged little tough nuggets under a microscope. No wonder it takes three to four weeks for water to penetrate and set off germination. However, I did soak the seeds for half an hour in hot water, and that's said to help speed things up. We'll see if it works or not in due course.

Dill seeds are larger. I've never had much luck with growing dill here, but I keep on trying. Fortunately, my local area has a big Greek population and every greengrocer has fresh dill. It's lovely with fish, or with baked vegetables, but it is a herb which needs to be used judiciously rather than generously.

Once all the Jiffies were fully expanded, I pulled back the fine fabric covers at the top, and planted the seeds. The dill seeds went in 10mm deep, the parsley seeds just 3mm deep.

As well as sowing the dill and parsley I also sowed two more punnets of shallot (ie, scallion or green onion) seed. We constantly use shallots here, they're one of my favourite backyard culinary plants, always very handy. I don't always grow shallots from seeds – shop-bought seedlings are just as good, but as I have some packets of seed here it seems silly to not use them. This little humidicrib cost less than $10 at Bunnings (local mega-giant hardware outfit) and it has worked a treat in raising all sorts of plant babies here. The green things on top slide, to let you adjust the amount of air inside.

So that's it so far. The shallot and dill seeds should be up in a week or so, but the parsley will take longer. I think the Jiffy pot idea will work, and it'll be a good way to plug a gap in a row of plants. Naturally enough, I'll report in on how the whole thing went when I know, in a few months' time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

USA here we come!

We're off to America! Yippee! Well, not straight away... let me explain. But I need your help!

Pammy and I have long talked about visiting the US one day, going for a long drive in fact. We don't like airports, but we do love music, and some sad events recently have galvanised us into doing it now, rather than waiting any longer. Life is short.

There are a couple of centrepieces to the trip, which could take about eight weeks to complete, maybe more. And I was hoping that some of my readers in the USA and elsewhere might be able to help out with suggestions of good gardens to see along the way.

We haven't figured out our exact itinerary yet, but I think we do know which states we're planning on visiting, so here goes with the rough outline.

First stop Hawaii - Pam loves volcanoes, has never seen one, so we're going to see active volcanoes on the Big Island. As we're not in a hurry, I am sure Hawaii has some superb gardens that would be worth seeing.

Nevada – OK, I admit it, I want to see the world's tackiest city, just for a day, but from there we'll be driving south to the Grand Canyon. I'm much more of a landscape and geography kind of tourist than a big city tourist.

Arizona - heading east from the Canyon...

New Mexico - main stop-off destination is Santa Fe

Texas – this is where the music thing really kicks in. We want to go to Lubbock for starters, not only because Buddy Holly was born there, but so too were our kind of musicians, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely. After that, Austin beckons. Wonder if James McMurtry will be playing there when we pass through?

Louisiana – this is the biggie for me. I love Cajun music so we're off to Lafayette for waltzes, two steps, gumbo and Po' Boy sandwiches. Then on to New Orleans of course, for both of us.

Now it gets crazy, we want to continue on by road to New York, so.....

Tennessee: first stop Memphis, then Nashville. We're hoping to see Tim O'Brien playing somewhere, sometime.

Not sure which route we'll take to get to New York from Nashville, but by then I'll be mighty tired (Pam doesn't drive), but I like the idea of crossing Kentucky by backroads, then West Virginia the same way.

Call us crazy kids, but that's the rough plan at this stage. A very long drive, taking several weeks, with no hurry to get home.

You can post your links and suggestions straight here in the comments box if you like, but you could also email me if you like, if that's easier, at my Garden Amateur email address, which is gardenamateur@gmail.com

All suggestions on any aspect of our plans are welcome, even those just saying "you're crazy" (but we do already know that).

We've given ourselves several months to plan the 2011 trip, but visiting some great gardens along the way is something we'd both love to do.

Thanks in advance for all your suggestions.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Germ-free repotting

I was reading in a history book recently about the dreadful standards of hygiene in hospitals back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it occurred to me that sometimes the standards of hygiene in the plant hospital out in my own backyard were little better. So, while I knew that I should sterilise secateurs when moving from one plant to the other during a pruning frenzy, I wasn't all that meticulous about it. Just think about it. A doctor comes in and says he's going to operate on you, using the same, uncleaned, instruments he used to operate on the previous patient. No way! The same goes for the hospital beds – you wouldn't want to get into the same, unmade hospital bed previously occupied by someone else. Yuk!

So, repotting my recent purchases was the perfect opportunity to put my new-found zeal for cleanliness into action, so here's how the germ-free repotting at Garden Amateur's reformed 21st-century plant hospital went.

Told you the standards of hygiene have improved. Bucket of warm water with a couple of glugs of disinfectant Pine-O-Cleen added. Scourer pad awaiting duty.

Six previously used pots to clean. The first step is to wash out all the old soil and scrub it down. (This is my birdbath cleaning brush, worn down into a birdbath shape over many years.) Once each pot was mostly clean, it then got the scourer-and-disinfectant treatment to get it up to hospital standards.

And here they are now, clean, germ-free and ready to take on their new occupants, hopefully for several years at least. All this cleaning is important. Just like people, plants get sick, suffer diseases, viruses and other ailments. The pathogens can lurk in the leftover potting mix and will potentially attack any new plants added to the pot. So, a bit of cleanliness lowers the overall mortality rate, just as it did once reforms to hospitals were made.

I love my plastic trugs, they get used for so many jobs in the garden. I have three in my shed, and two of them were indispensible this afternoon. This green trug was my repotting area for the orchid, catching all the old orchid potting mix, so I could work without making a major mess just outside the back door.

Unpotting plants is one of the most revealing things you can do. This is not the first time I've unpotted an orchid and found styrofoam chunks instead of orchid mix. I just don't like the look or the idea of styrofoam, even if I suspect it works quite well to improve soil drainage.

This is the dendrobium orchid after repotting. I use a specialised orchid potting mix for all my orchids. It looks and feels like composted chunks of bark, and it's very coarse indeed. In nature, orchids don't grow in soil, so ordinary potting mix isn't right for them. Orchid 'roots' cling onto branches or trees or rocks in nature, and so orchid potting mix is just a coarse, very free-draining medium for the roots to cling onto.

For the bromeliads, I mix up ordinary potting mix with orchid potting mix in a 50:50 ratio. Again, I use a trug to make this job easy, just adding three scoops of orchid mix to three scoops of potting mix, and mixing it all up well. Like orchids, bromeliads don't grow in soil in nature – they also cling onto tree branches and rocks, and the main thing they need is very free drainage in their growing medium.

Succulents do grow in soil in nature, but usually it's sandy, crappy quality soil, and so for them I use a specialised cacti and succulent mix. However, you could use a home-made 50:50 blend of ordinary potting mix and clean, coarse sand. The specialised potting mix is very coarse and sandy, providing the excellent drainage that succulents like. I only use the specialised stuff due to a certain laziness, I guess. I really should mix up my own stuff and buy less 'product'.

It only took about an hour from beginning (scrubbing) to end (taking this photo), but I am always very pleased to see plants in nice terracotta or glazed terracotta pots. I'm not sure whether it is OK to repot native orchids when in bloom, but I repotted the ones I bought in bloom last year, and that didn't affect them then and they are blooming nicely now, so I just figured they must be so tough even I cannot kill them.

Instead of just doing a blog about repotting, I thought I'd introduce the 'hospital cleanliness' idea as well, because reading that book about the appalling hospital standards a couple of hundred years ago did make me think about my standards. That's because the only things I am ever going to 'operate' on are plants, and as they are living things just like me, subject to diseases, they really do deserve at least a basic level of good hygiene, and in return more of them might thrive here in my garden.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Adding to the collection(s)

The chances of Pam and me not buying anything at this year's Florafest flower and garden show at Kariong, near Gosford on the NSW Central Coast, were precisely zero. And so it came to pass that we have come home with some new babies to add to our plant collections. Considering the temptations on offer, we were very restrained I think. I bought one new plant, Pam bought five, but she has better taste than me.

They aren't very big, all tucking in behind the driver's seat on the way home. Two new little native orchids that will always be little native orchids. One little native orchid that could well grow into a monster rock orchid, if I play my cards right. Two new succulents for Succulent City. And one new bromeliad to increase that little collection. All very restrained. No trees, no shrubs, not even a bushy perennial or a food plant.

This is the little native orchid collection at the moment; only five pots and two in flower, the third about to flower and the others just babies.

This is one of the existing native orchids, in bloom now and with a delicious sweet scent as a bonus.

Our new additions are also scented, but the colours are white and a paler pink, different flower forms, too; good choices by Pam.

This might be the smallest of the three plants, but it has the potential to grow very large indeed over the next 10 years. It's a Dendrobium orchid, a native plant usually found near bushland streams and creeks. It produces long, spectacular sprays of many small golden or yellow orchids, each spray about 30cm (1 foot) or more in length. That's not going to happen soon, but with some good care over the next few years it's something to look forward to. And the plant label has one of those typically catchy orchid botanical names of Dendrobium speciosum var. grandiflora 'Mt Larcom Gold' x D. speciosum var. speciosum 'Windermere'. At Florafest, the sign said Dendrobium 'Gold' and that's what I'm sticking with.

Pam chose this bromeliad, with the odd name of 'Guz Belinda', to brighten up our brom collection, which so far has only three inmates, which definitely need some new, interesting company.

Always one with an eye for the weirdos when down at the succulent stands, Pammy couldn't resist this Euphorbia caput medusa (ie, 'head of Medusa', that snake-headed lady from Ancient Greek Mythology).

I am sure that the first photos sent back in 2455 from space explorers who were the first to discover forests on other planets will look like this. This is how Planet Zorg probably looks.

And if you think the Medusa head Euphorbia is weird, check out this one, which I think is a very peculiar type of Echeveria. I already have a short, squat Echeveria which looks like this thing. Oddly enough for a large garden show, where the expert stands are everywhere, the plant label just says 'succulent'. You'd think they'd screen the exhibitors at the gate and reject the fools which don't even know what they're selling, but with succulents maybe it's a case that hardly anyone actually knows what this is.

Hovering overhead in their spaceship on Planet Zorg, the explorers noticed an outcrop of what looked like a strange succulent plant, but when it scuttled away into the nearby forest they realised the alien inhabitants were very different from the Earthlings in the spaceship overhead.

The great thing about attending one of those big flower and garden shows is the chance to buy plants which no garden centre is likely to stock. (Modern garden centres are so incredibly limited in their plant ranges).

I can't say that all the specialists at Florafest and other shows offer bargains. In fact when you go price-comparison shopping, you soon realise that rip-offs and bargains are out there in equal numbers. It pays to do a good lap of any show before making your first purchase, or you could end up seeing a price tag of $4 on something, having already paid $12 for the identical item which you're carrying around. Really ruins a day's shopping, that does!

It's great fun going to a gardening show, though. I had a good day there working on the Burke's Backyard stand doing very little of any use for the cause as it turns out, but it was nice to talk to a wide variety of readers and to refresh my appreciation of what a huge, diverse bunch of people love gardening.