Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010 - the best of

Well, this is going to be my last posting for 2010, and so as a way of signing off for the year, I thought I'd hand out some 'Best Of The Year' type awards for everything from the Plant of the Year (POTY) through to meals of the year (MOTY), book of the year (BOTY), movie of the year (MOTY) etc. You get the idea, so it's on with the show.

Envelope, please, glamorous assistant..... the 2010 Plant of the Year is....

Mrs Lithops! Well, a runaway winner is Mrs Lithops. She has starred in numerous 2010 blog postings, here, here and here. And she has been through family tragedies, the change of life, plus unanimous 'on the voices' election as Mayor of Succulent City (in which she has led them all superbly through a very wet spring, with no casualties). And she has achieved all this with a quiet, demure-but-strong demeanour. Well done, and congratulations, Mrs Lithops.

The second set of awards go the meals of the year, the yummiest food we encountered during 2010. The winner of dish of the year (DOTY) in the home-cooked division is....

Chermoula! This spicy North African blend of cumin, garlic, parsley, coriander, olive oil, paprika, cayenne, lemon juice, salt and pepper was this year's discovery in the kitchen, which I blogged about here. We combined chermoula with everything from fish to chicken and lamb, always with plenty of vegetables and couscous too, and it never let us down, and often thrilled us.

The award for DOTY, in the eating-out restaurant division, unfortunately doesn't come with a photo, but there was a joint winner, fortunately at the same Japanese restaurant, Azuma, in Chifley Square in the city. This very plain and sedate looking, wood-lined dining room was where Pammy and I had our 21st wedding anniversary dinner in June, and she absolutely loved the tissue-thin slices of fish, and the dressing, in the Kingfish Carpaccio there, while I just couldn't believe how incredibly yummy a Seaweed Salad could be, until I tasted Azuma's. No other Japanese restaurant comes close.

And now, a few other awards in the 'lifestyle' category...

Book of the Year (BOTY): '1959' by Fred Kaplan, a fascinating retelling of all the things that happened back in the year 1959. I won't bore you silly with a recounting of all the contents, but my poor friends were bored silly by me telling them what an entertaining read it was over several dinners in the middle of the year. Sucker for non-fiction, I'm afraid. Close second was one for the political junkies, Race of a Lifetime, by John Halperin and Mark Heilemann, a fast-paced, gossipy account of the 2008 US Presidential campaign.

Gardening book of the year (GBOTY): aw, shucks, it's Organic, by Don Burke, the book that I worked on, and which spent most of the year as Number One best-selling gardening book here in Australia. That was such a thrill that I surprised myself at how excited I was about its success.

Film of the year (FOTY): so hard to choose! I loved two French films with Vincent Lindon – 'Welcome' and 'Madamoiselle Chambon' – but the boy in me couldn't go past another wonderful pair of French films starring Vincent Cassell, the true, sometimes romantic, often violent, anarchic and chaotic story of France's Public Enemy Number One in the 1970s, Mesrine. Slight cheating here, as we saw Part One of the two-part epic back in December 09, then we saw Part Two around April this year. Pam and I see lots and lots of movies, including lots of Hollywood stuff, Aussie films, etc but this was a good year for French cinema.

Employee of the Year (EOTY): Pammy and I have a lovely tradition that now extends back several years. We work from home together and are set up as our own little two-person company. So each year we have a 'Staff Christmas Dinner' just like the big companies do, and each year one of us wins Employee of the Year. There's always a buzz of excitement around the place as the big day (and the lovely dinner) approaches. We're off to our favourite Japanese restaurant next week, and the envelope is sealed until then, unfortunately folks. You'll just have to share the tension with us, until then (but sources close to the company say that rumours are flying about that Pammy is a hot favourite to win it for an unprecedented third year running).

And so that's it for 2010 from me. I'm taking a break from work, from blogging (but not from gardening, watching movies, eating out and cooking) until some time in the New Year.

So thanks to everyone who has visited my blog, left comments and participated in the fun. Here's hoping you all have a wonderful Christmas, a memorable New Year celebration, and I'll be back some time in January to update you on the good life here in beautiful, sunny Marrickville.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The things you bring home sometimes

There's something about going to garden shows which a visit to a local nursery can never quite match. For one thing I love the crowds of people at a garden show. Not that I like crowds of people all that much at any time, but the incredibly varied variations on humanity wandering around a garden show are almost worth the price of admission itself. You don't see them on the streets that often, not in those numbers and that variety of shapes and styles. And they all have the vote!

And for another thing I love the unusual plants you can buy at garden shows. You never see these plants at your average garden centre. All the little specialist growers come out of the woodwork and lay their wares on tables, and fools like me willingly buy them. One of those "things that I brought home" is getting into full flowering stride now, so let's have a look.

This is one of the many forms of Costus barbatus, an ornamental ginger. This one is better known as the red tower ginger. As well as sending out a series of bright red petals, it's now sending out pointy yellow bonus blooms as well. According to those in the know, it will look like this for several weeks, maybe months more. Hope so.

It's certainly a dream residence for some of our tiny spiders, which have strung ultra-fine gossamer strings from floor to floor in their luxurious Red Tower Condo.

At the same garden show (Florafest at Kariong on the NSW Central Coast, in September) where I bought the red tower ginger, I also bought a Costa Flores ginger. This is also a form of Costus barbatus. So far all it has done is send up tropical looking foliage, but I'm keeping an eye on its progress. As tropical plants, these things take a while to get into the mood here in a warm-temperate Sydney summer, so it's not too late for it to go "traaa-daaaa" and lay on a bit of tropical razzle dazzle.

Should it send up a flower this season, this is what the plant label gleefully promises it will look like, which is spectacular. I love tropical plants, they're just so unrestrained in their approach to growing and flowering. None of this tasteful delicacy malarky. If they were a musical instrument, they'd be a brass band.

As Julie pointed out in a recent comment here in an earlier posting about these plants, I think I am growing them in the wrong spot. I didn't think it was too sunny, but the foliage is definitely showing signs of sunburn. So I guess they might have to be moved later on in 2011, after this summer has well and truly ended. In the meantime, I'm enjoying keeping an eye on these things which I brought home from the garden show.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lebanese eggplants

"That's a nice plant to grow in the garden just for its own sake. I think I might do a painting of that one," said my wife Pam this morning. Though it isn't bearing any fruit at the moment, our Lebanese eggplant has begun to flower, and it's a handsome plant, worthy of an artist's attention.

There's a lovely purpley-pink tinge to the flower buds, flowers, the stalks and the central veins of the broad leaves of this Lebanese eggplant.

The plant label promised that it would reach about 1m tall, so it's halfway there now. I planted some little annuals called Gomphrenas at the same time as I planted the eggplant seedling, as I thought a pinky purple scene would look pretty. So far so good!

The flowers themselves point down towards the ground, and hopefully some long, thick, sausage- shaped, purpley-black eggplants will be dangling from this spot sometime in late January.

Turn a flower up for a peek and it has that tell-tale look that other members of the Solanum genus, such as potatoes, have. It's a simple bloom that has a brief heyday of beauty, but with that colour it's a class above a humble white spud flower.

As I mentioned earlier there's a purplish tinge to the dark veins that run along and across each leaf. They're a big part of what makes this plant such a handsome thing. Growing it isn't too hard. It's the usual story of give it fertile, well-drained soil, lots of sunshine and regular water. The plant label says to give it an extra feed when the fruits start to swell, and avoid over-watering as the fruit nears maturity. In a typically wet Sydney summer, that might be where I come unstuck!

Pam and I are not big eggplant eaters, but we do like them occasionally. I just like to grow all sorts of vegies, just to see how the plants grow and look. I'm sure we'll find some new ways to enjoy our home-grown eggplants. I am rather fond of the dip called Baba Ghannouj, so here's the recipe I use (it's based on the one from the Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook, by Tess Mallos, but not so garlicky).

1 medium sized eggplant, about 375g
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup tahini (a sesame paste product used a lot in Lebanese cooking)
1 clove garlic
salt to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

Pierce the eggplant all over with a skewer (to stop it bursting), then place it on a rack in a 180°C (350°F) oven for about 35-40 minutes, turning it once or twice to ensure even cooking.
Remove from the oven and let it cool slightly, but do peel off the skin while it's still very warm. Discard the skin, roughly chop the flesh, then put the flesh in a blender, along with all the other ingredients, and whizz till it forms a paste.
Use it as a dip with flatbread or crisps, or serve it as a side dish in a spread with cooked meats, salads, flatbread etc.
Note: if you can be bothered to cook the eggplant over a smoky char-grill, the eggplant will take on a smoky flavour which some people say is the hallmark of a great baba ghannouj. I'm not wild about smoked flavours myself, but there you go.

Finally, if you enjoy Lebanese food too, there's a great food blog by a Sydney-based Lebanese cook that's well worth visiting. It's called The Food Blog and right now, today, he's making pistachio ice-cream.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Black Lagoon

It's great how words get hijacked and reinvented down through the years. I was thinking about the case of the word 'trug' while I was enjoying a late afternoon beer, watching the bubbles come up from the pot of chives I was drowning in a dark, slightly smelly, black liquid that half-filled my indispensible trug. (I'll get onto the story of the chive-drowning in the Black Lagoon in a moment.)

The word trug seems to me have been hijacked here in Australia by the good folk who make the versatile plastic trugs pictured below. A lot of gardeners overseas would think of a trug as a handy small wooden basket, but here in Australia our trugs are luridly colourful, bendy plastic tubs with handles on the top. I couldn't do without mine, and in fact I have four of them, and I'm going to sing their praises for a moment.

Three of my trugs are the same size as the orange one on the left, and I found this smaller, snazzy purple one at Officeworks (a chain of supermarket-style stores for small business supplies – fabulously good fun to shop in with a trolley and a credit card). As you can see it's the purple one where I'm drowning my pot of chives.

Here's the Black Lagoon. Now I am being kind, not cruel (well, except to ants, I guess). All my potted herbs are not looking all that terrific at the moment, and I'm too lazy and busy to repot them as I have done in previous years. (Standards are slipping around here.) And so I am trying to rewet the soil inside the pots and hopefully drown some ants while I am at it.

The evil black solution is a product called Seasol Super Soil Wetter, so it's a combo of the popular seaweed product Seasol (a soil conditioner) and a soil wetting agent. I mix up two 9-litre watering cans worth of the stuff to fill the trug, then add the pot. It takes about a minute or two for it to sink to the bottom, then the bubbles keep on coming up from the pot for another 20 minutes. After another half an hour I remove the pot, put it back in its spot (on pot feet so all the liquid drains off), then water it with clean water to get the soil wetter muck off the foliage. Then I add the next pot to the Black Lagoon. Hopefully it should work well. It has worked a treat with my larger potted cumquat, which I blogged about here earlier this year.

As well as drowning the chives I also gave the pot of tarragon the same treatment, and immediately after its soaking both pots look dreadful. Well, I'd look dreadful if was soaked in a Black Lagoon for half an hour, so fair's fair.

This is how the same pot of tarragon looked in March this year, so it's a shadow of its former self at the moment. If the soaking doesn't work, I guess I'll repot it in autumn, like I probably should anyway.

It was while I was watching the tarragon and chive pots bubbling away in the Black Lagoon that I started thinking about how fabulously useful tugs are.

My garden is far too small for wheelbarrows of any kind, and so my trugs are my wheel-less barrows. Here they are doing great service during my annual 'harvest of the compost tumbler bin'. One tumbler bin easily fills these three trugs, and the vegies and all other plants just love the compost when I spread it around.

When I need to make up a specialist blend for a potting mix (for example, bromeliad mix, which is 50:50 orchid potting mix and ordinary potting mix) or as pictured here, my 50:50 blend of straw and compost for hilling around potatoes, the trug is where the action is. I use trugs for repotting, carrying tools, dropping weeds into, mixing up any liquid concoctions in bulk – you name the job and the trug is always close at hand. I simply couldn't do without my little bendy, colourful, plastic trug.

And finally, for a complete change of topic, before I sign off on today's post. I'd like to direct all of you over to Lanie's blog at Edible Urban Garden for a moment, as she is being featured not only in the latest issue of a stylish magazine, but her posting also includes a great linky to a little video all about her wonderful kitchen garden right here in the inner-west of Sydney, where I live too. It's a cute video and a lovely, lovely garden. Well done, Lanie!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Powdery mildew controls

(Every now and then a garden blogger has to narrow down his or her focus and talk to the locals, and so this posting is probably aimed at gardeners on the east coast of Australia more than anywhere else right now, but I guess it applies to anywhere when the rain doesn't stop, the humidity rises and the vegie patch takes on a grey dusting of powdery mildew disease....)

Powdery mildew. It attacks all sorts of plants. I was even reading about it attacking mighty oak trees earlier today. It's a fungal disease that's like having zillions of tiny white mushrooms infesting the leaves on your plants. It looks like the foliage has been dusted with talcum powder. (But unlike Ogden Nash's lovely little rhyme that: "A little bit of talcum is always walcum", a little bit of powdery mildew is never really walcum in the garden.)

Of all the plants it attacks, powdery mildew loves the vegie patch most: zucchinis, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash and melons are its classic victims, but it attacks many others, too. Well, I think I have found an organic product that works very well to control powdery mildew, isn't too much of a hassle to use, and is worth mentioning here. And no, this isn't a paid ad, as you (and its makers) will soon discover.

Here's my zucchini plant from last summer, its leaves dusted with powdery mildew. It's the white stuff. It doesn't actually kill your crop. You still get zucchinis coming through in droves, but upstairs the plant looks dreadful. And I like pretty plants, so this bothers me. When powdery mildew gets really bad, it can harm plants' health and shorten their season.

Sydney has had a ridiculous amount of rain recently, and this cucumber plant has no reason to look this healthy, and that is due to the product which I'll tell you about a bit later on.

No, this isn't it, but it is one organic solution that is sort-of worth a try. It's milk, diluted 1:10 with water, and used as a spray. If you do a Google search you'll find a fair bit of literature saying it works. I have tried it for two years and it just barely works. You need to re-apply it constantly, especially after every shower of rain. So it's a pain to use, as it's so much work. And if powdery mildew sets in for any reason (ie, you have a weekend away), it cannot stem the tide. As far as I am concerned, it's not all that effective, but it's not hopeless, either.

This is what's working for me this time round. The mob who makes Eco Fungicide also makes Eco Rose, Eco Oil and a range of other certified-organic 'Eco' products. To be unfair, it's a glorified bi-carb soda mixture, but I have tried the home-made bi-carb soda recipes and this one works better than them. There must be something else in it, but I'm not sure what it is (EDIT! See Alexa's comment below – it's potassium bicarbonate, not the common kitchen stuff sodium bicarbonate – thank you Alexa). It's not cheap, but one 500ml jar should last me several years, at the tiny rate at which I use it in my small garden. This 500g container cost $19.85 at Bunnings (our mega hardware chain, for overseas readers).

For each spray I use here (and there aren't many) I allocate a cheap pump sprayer, and never mix anything else in it. You can't store a mixture of Eco Fungicide for any time, so you just mix up a batch and use it all, each time. For this one-litre bottle of water, I add one level teaspoon of Eco Fungicide powder, plus 2mL of horticultural oil.

If the people who make Eco Fungicide were thinking this is a great free plug for them, they'll be horrified to see the opposition's product here! Eeeek! The Eco Fungicide people make Eco Oil, which is a vegetable based, organic horticultural oil. The opposition product, PestOil, is petroleum-based, but it's a very very mild oil that does an almost identical job to Eco Oil, and it's what I use, and what I have a 500ml bottle of already. And I only need a tiny bit, so it'll do me, as it always has done. Fab product, PestOil.

As for only needing a tiny bit, this is where my policy of "never throw out a measure of any sort" came into its own. Isn't hoarding great when it pays off? Yippeee! Anyway, this is a measure from an old packet of trace elements, and this little 1mL cup-ette is perfect for adding a tiny bit of oil to the one-litre bottle of Eco Fungicide mix. Just shake up the water, Eco Fungicide and the oil, then spray all over the foliage. So far the results have been great. The product label says to spray about once a week, which is much more user-friendly than other 'organic' sprays which have to be re-applied constantly.

I thought I would finish off with a few words in favour of powdery mildew, such as this stuff on my zucchini leaves.

The more powdery mildew you have the more ladybirds the plants attract. My zucchini foliage last year was covered in ladybirds, so every cloud has a silver lining, as they say.

Here's one more option for you to try, if a $19.85 jar of stuff sounds a bit too expensive for you. An expert gardener to whom I was speaking on Saturday night (at an excellent party hosted by Zora and Sean - well done, you two) told me that she puts the well-known seaweed product Seasol into her sprayer and uses that to control powdery mildew in her vegie garden. So if you have a bottle of that on hand already, give that a try and let me know if that works for you. You might save some other gardeners some money, some heartache and most important of all, some crops.

If you want to read a bit more about Eco Fungicide, here's a link to their website.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Humorous weather

Our resident rain god, Huey, has a great sense of humour. December 1, the first day of summer. Hee hee hee. Cold and rainy, the classic Aussie summer, eh Huey? Very funny.

Many houses in my area were built in the first two decades of the 20th century (ours was built in 1916). And they have tiled roofs over the living rooms and bedrooms, but out the back, where the laundry and kitchen are, the roof is galvanised iron. And in the early morning, as I wander out into the kitchen, all you need to do is listen, to know that it's raining. I love the sound of rain on a tin roof. Out in the garden, the water bowls are dancing with raindrops.

The water garden needed bailing out, lest the goldfish suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the rim. And the gardenias behind are quickly turning from crisp white perfection into slimy brown mush. Thank you Huey, very amusing weather.

Almost every plant in the garden loves Huey's humour at the moment. Perhaps the succulents and Mrs Lithops could do with some warm, dry sunshine, but this potted cumquat is lapping up the rain.

Flowering plants such as this NSW Christmas Bush glisten with droplets and sag slightly under the extra load.

The long-term weather forecaster people say that this is going to be a wet summer, and that's a welcome change, a good thing for our dry soils. Certainly Huey has had a good laugh at our expense this morning. The classic Aussie summer – it's off to a squelchy start!