Monday, December 24, 2012

Green thoughts in a green shade

Well, I can't say it was a shock, as the rumours were doing the rounds, but the way the news of the closure of our great old magazine arrived was a surprise. It was an informal end-of-year lunch for the team, the day after we finished the February issue. Our boss, Don, has been fighting like mad for years to keep the whole thing going, but our magazine is a joint venture with a giant global publishing conglomerate, and when they said 'it's over' Don had no choice but to come and tell us the news he hated to bear. None of us were shocked at all, and so it wasn't a teary, depressing kind of thing. It was just a sense of "rats, it's over," a lousy way to end a tough year. Bye 2012, you haven't been a great year, have you?

And so our March issue will be the last 'Burke's Backyard' mag, and I'll be looking for work from February onwards next year. And while the practical side of me already is making sensible plans, I woke up this morning thinking of a poem I loved while a student at uni, and so I thought I'd do a little posting on this poem: 'The Garden', by Andrew Marvell, written somewhere between 1650 and 1670 most likely. We don't know when, exactly.

I like this poem for itself. Perhaps you might already know the line "a green thought in a green shade" but what I remember is its meaning, or at least its meaning according to the way my tutor at university explained it to me. It made so much sense it has always been the way I have thought about this poem, and this is how I'm thinking right now.

So, here goes with my brief little reading of this poem, illustrated with some shots from my garden, taken over the years...

Marvell was a politician as well as a poet, and back in those days politics was more than brutal, it was deadly. The King had his head cut off, and many lesser mortals, many of them politicians, were tortured and executed in ways you would never like to know. 

And so Mr Marvell, in this poem, is about to enter a dangerous Parliament as a known former republican sympathiser when that wasn't the winning side to be on. In his poem 'The Garden', he is tossing up whether to stay in his beautiful, peaceful, bountiful garden, or venture back out into the treacherous, competitive and often dangerous world of public affairs. Why not just stay in the garden? Why not indeed.

My uni tutor, with a great degree more certainty than seems wise now, was adamant that Marvell wrote this poem at the time when he was considering re-entering Parliament. 
Academics would dispute this with much evidence to back them (so I have subsequently learnt) but I am still persuaded that it's a perfectly reasonable reading of the poem.

To me, it's a wonderful poem on the struggle between seeking the comfort and security of life in a peaceful garden, versus the responsibility of plunging into the hurly-burly of ordinary public life.

That's where I'm at right now. Not only do I have a lovely garden, I've been earning a quid in a lovely garden of a job for 14 years now, and the idea of leaving my two gardens for most of every working day is very, very unappealing indeed. How little can I live on? Can I still earn money while working from home? Who would have me?

I know that virtually everyone reading this blog doesn't live a cosseted life in a garden all day long, as I have been so fortunate to do for these last 14 years, so I accept your muttered 'tough luck' with head bowed. So many of us commute in crowded buses and trains, some hold down crappy jobs supervised by thoughtless oafs, are underpaid, tired and possibly a bit depressed by the grind of it all, too. 

All my life I've made the decision to leave jobs I don't like, and to go looking for something interesting, even if the pay is lousy. I've been fortunate that I have skipped like a frog from one interesting little lilypad of work to another, but this time I think I might be swimming to shore: times are getting tougher and interesting lilypads scarcer.

However, my first instinct is to not only stay here in the garden, try to make a goer of it and not abandon it, be unfaithful to it, until I have run out of options. So unlike Mr Marvell, who opened the garden gate and rode off to London and its lethal uncertainties, I am staying here, thinking a green thought in a green shade.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone, I'm sorry I didn't do a 'jingle bells' posting this Christmas Eve, but jingly bells aren't what woke me up this morning. What I woke up to was memories of this beautiful poem, below.

See you in 2013, best wishes to you all.

By Andrew Marvell

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men;
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So am’rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name;
Little, alas, they know or heed
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat.
The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race:
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
   What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Guest spot

One very mild irritation of being a gardening blogger is the number of companies emailing me asking to allow them to do a 'guest posting' here at Garden Amateur. Invariably all they want to do is advertise their products and so invariably I politely refuse their kind offer. However, a plant which I haven't grown has come into our world this week, and so I thought it could feature in the kind of "guest spot" posting that I can approve of, as it's still written by me!

Pam's responsible for all this. She wants to do a painting of a Sturt's desert pea (Swainsona formosa) and so she asked our excellent local florist, Flowers by Teresa in Illawarra Road, Marrickville, if they could find a potted one for her (wasn't cheap but they did find her a nice one). And so now we have a lovely child of the desert here in humid, rainy, coastal Sydney.

This is the big attraction of the Sturt's Desert
Pea, its large pea flowers.

It's the state floral emblem of South Australia, and its natural
habitat is our dry inland arid zones. Right now it's still in its
black plastic pot, sitting up on pot feet, and I am terrified of
killing it. So, despite my usually chivalrous streak, I have told
my darling girl that it's her baby to look after (but I will try
to find out what to do, of course).

So, how to look after this desert-loving plant?
Well, the fact sheet at Burke's Backyard says
lots of potted desert peas sold are grafted onto
a tougher rootstock (New Zealand glory pea).
The purpose of this grafting is to avoid the root rot
and fungal problems which can plague this dry-country
plant when it is taken to the humid coast to live.
But that doesn't mean it likes rain or anything like
that of course. It still likes it dry, but as our
East Coast air is inherently humid and soggy
that's the main threat to this lovely thing.
And slow-release native plant food is the go,
but plastic pots are not (they're too 'sweaty'), so
at some stage a porous terracotta pot should
become its preferred, free-breathing home.  

It's a low, sprawler of a plant that probably
loves nothing better than growing from the top
of a mound of dusty, dry inland soil and spilling
down its sloping sides.

The flowers are long (75mm, about three
inches) and quite delicate, especially when you
take a peek behind the scenes, like this.

Before they open the flower buds have a certain beaky elegance.

And the small, oval leaves are lightly hairy all over.

So far so good, we've had it here three days and it's looking just a little bit lovelier than when it arrived. I presume that's due to the dry sunshine, being placed near the fellow 'we like dryness' folk who populate Succulent City, and having Pam's serene willpower urging it along. I like it, it's really unusual and beautiful, and even though I haven't grown it and it's really a 'guest plant' here at Amateurland, it's already feeling like one of the family.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Good bones

While watching my renovated garden grow and gradually take shape – it probably won't be fully 'grown' until late summer – it occurred to me that what my supposed 'renovations' really have been all about is merely changing the filling which goes in between the unchanging good bones of our fundamental garden design.

Confused? Well, it's rare for me to bother about garden design, because it's not a topic which interests me all that much, but I do believe that a set good bones on which you can hang all sorts of growing green garden clothes is important. Now, it all started back in 2001, when Pammy spotted this photo, below, in an article written by a friend, Cheryl Maddocks.

"I want this" was Pam's simple, direct request, and I liked the
idea immediately. Maybe it's because we have a shed at the
back of our property that made this simple idea so appealing,
but a central path to the door of the shed, with little path-lets
off to the sides formed the bones of this design. What is actually
grown in between the little squares doesn't really matter.
In the photo above it's vegies and flowers, and these change
throughout the year as the summer and winter crops change.
That's pretty much what happens in our garden, too.
If you click on this photo it should come up a lot bigger (I hope).
I took a bunch of photos this afternoon (on a cloudy day) and
then whipped them into Photoshop, to produce this 'panorama'.
In the 'squares' on the left side I have various crops of vegies coming and going. Gaps appear when whole lettuce are yanked out and new seedlings go in. On the right side the first two 'squares' house flowers such as Plectranthus and Tibouchina 'Jules'. The third 'square' on the right is the succulent garden, and beyond it at the end, near the leaning lemon tree of Pisa, is the strawberry patch.

Ever since we've laid down the paved bones of our garden layout, I have dug up, changed and replanted the infill between the bones many, many times over. It's never the same, it's always changing, and yet it has a continuity over the years thanks to its structure.

And that's about it from me for a grand theory of garden design. I like good bones. Thank you Pammy for taking charge of the basic structure of it all, great idea, lovely bones!

Phew, I'm glad that bit is taken care of. For me gardening is all about the plants – I just love to help them get started in life, then watch them grow and help them along where I can. And the amateur backyard scientist in me is endlessly fascinated by everything I can discover and learn about the soil, the insects and all the other visiting wildlife. In between those paved bones there's a whole mini ecosystem bubbling with life out there beyond my back door. That's what I love about gardening.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Loving their new home

Steady growth is a deceptive thing. It wasn't until I compared my September and December photos of the revamped succulent garden that I realised how much things have grown there. At least I know they're loving their new home, and that's the main thing I wanted to happen. Digging in vast amounts of sand has provided them with the free-draining soil they needed, and this relatively dryish spring has suited them just fine. Thank you Huey, the Rain God, very supportive gesture. And so it's on with the guided tour, and if any succulent experts can help me with a few names, I will be forever in your debt.

This morning, December 9, a happy little succulent patch.
Check out the photo below, to see how well it has grown.

This is the day I planted it all out, September 2. 

This hovering 'helicopter' shot shows how there's a bit of
crowding going on, but most of them have room to grow.
The main problem here is the green Sedum 'Autumn Joy'
centre left, which is making life hard for the sempervivums.

These portulacas (yellow and red flowers) have come up by
themselves. They are a weed of  a thing, so weedy I waged a
 battle to be rid of them a few years back, but with all the digging
of soil in so many places, some seed has come to the surface
and, typical of portulacas, raced away. Letting them grow on
might prove to be a mistake, but I do grudgingly admire them.

Sedum rubrotinctim 'Jelly Beans' with a little
pink tinge to the tips, are doing outrageously well.

Ditto the grey-blue Senecio nearby. Slow down!

At the back of the bed, a formerly neglected,
potted Crassula argenta 'Coral', a fat-trunked
mini tree, is loving its new home. Its interesting
dimple-ended fat succulent leaves were sparse
when I transplanted it here, but it's piling on the
foliage now and is now looking much more imposing.

Black-leaved Aeonium 'Schwartkopf' has grown a lot, so too
its neighbour, who I think might be a Senecio ameniensis.

Well-named, Kalanchoe 'Copper Spoons' in
front, with another Senecio amaniensis at the
back, both belting along in the sandy soil.

This weirdo is an echeveria, E. 'Topsy Turvey'.

Euphorbia caput-medusae, or Medusa's head, will soon
be wearing a veil of these pretty little yellow flowers all over.

This trailing succulent, about to flower, is Senecio jacobensii.
It's probably happier in a hanging basket, on the edge of a
rock or ledge, but I am hoping it will grow down the gentle
slope. I have another one in a basket, just as a back-up.

At this stage, its flower looks like a bunch of julienned carrots.

As mentioned earlier, these sempervivums are being crowded
by the rapid spread of the Sedum 'Autumn Joy'. I'm keeping
a watch on this, which I suspect is an unfolding disaster.

Now, for the bit where the succulent experts might be able to
help. This person is growing well, colouring up nicely, but as
for its name I've got short odds on it being a graptoveria, but
go ahead and surprise me, tell me it's something else. All the
original plant label said was 'succulent'.

Same deal with this fascinating person, whose name I don't know.
When planted back in September, it looked decidedly unhealthy,
a bit 'wrinkly' in the foliage, but now it looks like it's back from
the health resort. Searching for something like it in books and
online has come up with the possibility it's an Argyroderma
of some sort (a what?); and there's a rough chance it could be a
haworthia even, but I honestly don't know its name.

EDIT: thanks to reader/commenter Ngeun, who has a great 
blog called Lithopslandat first it looked like this person is
a Lapidaria of some kind, but then a kind friend of Ngeun's 
had a look, and the final decision is that it's Corpuscularia,
Probably C. lehmannii. Thank you LT Expanded!

Finally, if you have spotted one or two weeds lurking in the background of photos, yes they are there in numbers at all times. So far I roughly estimate that I have yanked out a few thousand baby weedlets in the last three months (lots of oxalis, natch). From this experience I think pebbles might be pretty but they are the least weed-suppressing mulch ever! Fortunately, in the extremely soft, sandy soil the weeds come out, roots and all, very easily. Wandering outside in the morning to pull out another few dozen weedlets has become part of the daily routine, but I think it has helped a lot. 

The other important benefit of spending those few minutes fussing over the succulent patch every morning is that it is so much rewarding fun. And that's the main thing!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lighting up Christmas

I suppose all of you have a story like this one to tell, so you could consider this to be just a local posting for inner-westies of Sydney. Get along to Frazer Street in Marrickville, to see what Pam and I think is the inner-west's most wonderfully over-the-top Christmas-decorated house. The owner of this house has been doing it for years, and each year he adds more. Of course it's such a drawcard that parking is a bother sometimes, but last night on our way driving home from an evening out Pam kept saying "don't forget Frazer Street" and so we didn't, stopping off to join the crowds who were there to be awe-inspired, and it didn't disappoint. We both took home little parcels of awe last night.

You can't miss it. It glows from afar, but for the record I think
it's 38 Frazer Street. No sure what Mr and Mrs 36 think of it all.

As well as the house itself there's a second mini house, a
permanent structure (you can check it out by day on Google
Street View) where he adds his nativity scene dioramas.
Whatever you do, don't miss them.
It'd have to be madness or breathaking incompetence to miss
the nativity scene house. Like moths to a flame...

Visitors can make donations there, as I suspect the owner's
carbon footprint could match that of any jet-setting celebrity.

Picky people could ask whether there were '34 Ford Coupes
back in the Holy Land times, but I do admire his desire to
fill every last square inch of diorama space with action.
Finally, for the directionally challenged inner-westies, Frazer
Street runs off New Canterbury Road (at a set of lights), and
the next major street down ('nuther set of lights) is Wardell
Road, and the razzle dazzle is roughly in the middle. Do take
the little kiddies along, they will, like us, be awe-struck.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It is a far far better thing...

There I was this morning, deadheading the daisies, and all of a sudden I was thinking of my first romantic hero when I was a book-mad teenage boy: Sidney Carton from Charles Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities'. A grim connection indeed, when you think of poor Sidney's fate, climbing the steps to the guillotine in the Terror of the French Revolution, but I could see the connection. Sidney's final, noble words are the immortal quote: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

He was my romantic ideal then, sacrificing his life by substituting himself for the man who was intended for the guillotine, so the woman Sidney loved could live her life with the man she loved, who was, alas, not Sidney. (I don't think I was doing all that well with the chicks when I was 14, so I must have looked upon myself as a punily similar tragic figure.)

Where was I? That's right, deadheading the daisies. (These tangents of thought do pop up rather often while pottering about the garden.) It is a far, far better thing that the daisy plants lose a few fading flowers, as that's the only way for the show to go on. *Sniff*

The party is over for this bedraggled former
beauty. As far as the daisy is concerned, it has
done its bit and formed seeds (flowering is just
a means to an end, but the real purpose of
flowering is, of course, to set seed). As a gardener
my task is to thwart that ambition, to deny it its
seed. The only option for the thwarted flowering
plant is to try and try again, by sending up more
flowers. And that's what deadheading is all about.

There's a mixture of flowers in bloom and faded ones here, so
the trick is to cut off the dead 'uns without hacking down the lot.

This is my 'Sidney Carton' moment where a few
perfectly upright, decent blooms still in flower
get caught up in the revolution. I do try to be
accurate and neat in my snipping, but there are
always some casualties. (That's where the 'far
far better thing' bit popped into my head.) 

I trimmed back this little daisy completely, about two or three
weeks ago, and look at it now. Flowers aplenty, more coming
through. Hopefully that'll be the case with the others.

Deadheading annual flowers is more of a time-consuming chore than the cheerful monthly gardening magazine 'to do' lists admit, but it's amazing how well it works. These annual plants truly do live hard and die young – just a few months from beginning to end sometimes – but if you don't deadhead them they die far too young. With some judicious deadheading you can get them to put out two or three full flushes in their short stay here on Earth. 

FInally, thinking about poor old Sidney Carton and that wonderful book by Dickens, I really ought to also mention the movies of 'A Tale of Two Cities'. I read the book first, and loved it, but then I discovered the 1935 version of the film starring Ronald Coleman, and watched it several times. If I was going to be a tragic, romantic hero back then, I was going to do it Ronald Coleman style. 

Fortunately for me, I never got the gig as tragic teenage hero, but I have lived long enough to also discover the 1958 Dirk Bogarde version of 'Tale of Two Cities', and I'm sorry, Dirk: while you're a fine actor with many great films to your credit, I'm afraid that your version is not a patch on Ronald Coleman's. 

I haven't thought of 'Tale of Two Cities' nor of Ronald Coleman for years, but thanks to my little patch of daisies I have mentally dusted off my Dickens shelf. Gardening's like that, you never know what it's going to make you think of next.

And now, only if you can bear to watch some romantic tragedy while garden blog browsing, is the final scene from Ronald Coleman's 'Tale of Two Cities'.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Dripping wet

Lovely sound, gentle rain on a tin roof. And the changes a bit of morning rain brings to the garden are so tempting. No matter how much it rains, I just have to go out there and soak it up (the imagery, not the water). One delightful thing that rain does to the garden is that some plants actually look their best when they're wet, such as this weeping Acacia cognata, pictured below.

Though this is a wattle it doesn't flower in a
wattley way. It's a foliage plant that has come
into vogue in recent years, but it's a tricky
thing to keep happy in humid Sydney.
Somehow mine has survived (maybe that's
because it's one of "Pam's plants" of which
there are several here in the garden). When it
rains it becomes sparkly with raindrops held
in place against the laws of gravity.

You'd never notice this tiny spider web on top of the Acacia
when it's dry, but in this morning's rain it's a foam of rain bubbles.
I was almost going to leave my morning's posting on raindrops at simply admiring the lovely little weepy Acacia, but with little pocket camera in hand, everywhere I turned there was something which looked a bit lovelier in the rain. So here's a few more...

Looking almost waterproof, Sedum 'Autumn Joy'.

This other succulent sedum looks as if someone has hit the
'pause' button. Raindrops which should be sliding down the
smooth sides just hang onto the side as if they're blobs of glue.

Still green and young, these will grow up to
become Turkish Brown Figs one day.

I think the PestOil which I sprayed onto my Thai makrut lime
leaves (to deter aphids and citrus leaf miner) has played a hand
in making these leaves so water-repellent.

And lettuce always looks more delicious in the rain.
It hasn't really rained here enough during spring, so the garden needs a good drink. No matter how well I attempt to water all the plants here during the dry periods, they always prefer a drink from the heavens rather from the end of a hose. There's magic in rainwater: if you go outside in the rain, sometimes you can see it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The honeymoon is over

It has been quite a lovely spring, but the honeymoon is over, and there are many ways every gardener in Sydney knows that. For starters, there was yesterday... if being billed as 'December 1, first day of summer' wasn't enough, the weather gods threw us a stinker of a hot, humid day with temperatures approaching the old century made worse, much worse, by stifling, muggy air. However, my sense that the honeymoon of spring had well and truly ended was with me before then. The finks have arrived in numbers. 

When you see ants farming aphids, you know the honeymoon is over and the hard work of gardening in this mostly beautiful climate has begun.

This bunch of new leaf shoots on my potted
Thai makrut lime is busy with the activity of
ants bringing black aphids to feast on the juicy
new shoots. The unpleasant fact that the ants
then 'harvest' the sweet body fluids from the
aphids is almost enough reason to detest their
heartless efficiency, but for me, it's the way they
are damaging a perfectly healthy and happy
lime tree that really gets me! Finks. 

Over in the Tahitian lime tree there's another honeymoon-
wrecker at work: stink bugs. I did a little posting about these
sap suckers a few weeks ago, when they were coloured in the
vivid orange which gives them the other name of bronze orange
bugs. Now they are adults and they're coming in waves, and
these adults are much harder to see than the colourful kids.

Who has the perfect climate for gardening? No-one. Sydney is a wonderful place to grow so many plants. It's so mild here where I am, fairly close to the coast, that we never get frosts in winter. Rainfall is pretty steady, year-round, and a quick glance out the back door any day of the year and all you see is lush greenery.

So my complaints about the honeymoon being over are merely an annual regret. Spring is such an energising, enjoyable time in the garden. Everything grows like mad, the pests only come in dribs and drabs, and most of the gardening stories are happy ones. 

What lies ahead in summer is still a lot of fun, but all plants now have uncertain futures (just like us). Pests and diseases are always on the agenda, bad summer storms can end a plant's career in 10 minutes, and so gardening becomes a bit more of a battle, yet I'm happy enough to get out there and do my bit.

Instead of finishing on that lamentable note, I really should keep things in balance by saying that almost everything is still happy and thriving. New flowers are appearing, the first flush of spring crops has already been harvested and the second set is up and growing, and the revamped succulent patch is getting into stride very nicely. So here are a few happy images of the kids in the backyard to finish. 

Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender' had a rough winter; I actually
fell into the bush at one stage during garden renovations, and so
I had to cut it back very heavily, but now it's starting to do what it
usually does for most of the year – flower its head off.

At the base of the plectranthus, a row of little gomphrenas
(little annual flowers) are matching the bigger plant behind
for enthusiasm in putting on a pinky-purple show.

Next door to the plectrantus is a potted
Tibouchina 'Groovy Baby' doing a purple thing.
And in a sunny spot these daisies are beaming innocent cheer.

OK, summer, bring it on! We're ready for whatever you have in store. (How about lots of sunshine with rain on Monday and Thursday nights? Too much to ask? Thought so).