Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Good news for bees

This morning's radio news had something I have been waiting to hear for a long time now, and it's good news for bees. The European Union has voted to impose a two-year ban on a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which research shows are very likely to be responsible for the dramatic decline in bee populations in many countries. You can read more about it here, at this article in the Guardian. And here's a good article from 'The Conversation' website, written by Prof. Nigel Andrew, Associate Professor of Entomology at the University of New England here in Australia.

My garden is full of bees, and I aim to keep it that way by using
very few sprays, and only organic sprays when I do try to
control some kind of pest that's damaging my plants. But which
are the dodgy sprays that you should avoid?

That's the problem with these news reports. They always sound
like scientific papers, with all these impossible to remember
chemical names. So, I thought I'd mention some of the brand
names which are much more familiar to we gardeners.

For me, here in Australia, the product I avoid is Confidor. It
contains imidacloprid. When I first came across Confidor in
my gardening magazine work several years ago, it came with
marketing hype that said it was 'new generation' and 'much safer'.
So much for marketing hype, eh? If you read the label on a
Confidor pack, and you're an organic gardener, you'd stay
away from it anyway, but it has taken widespread use of
these chemicals to build a truer picture of its dangers to bees
and other insects it was never intended to control.
Now, I know from the little spinning world globe at the top of my blog that I have readers around the world, and a lot of you probably are thinking "What's Confidor, never heard of it?" So here's a list which I have seen repeated on several other blogs and websites, of the brand names which used neonicotinoid chemicals subject to the EU ban.

Brand names for imidacloprid include: Kohinor, Admire, Advantage, Gaucho, Merit, Confidor, Hachikusan, Premise, Prothor, and Winner. 
Brand names for clothianidin include: Gaucho, Titan, Clutch, Belay, Arena.
Brand names for acetamiprid include: Assail, Intruder, Adjust.
Brand names for thiacloprid include: Calypso.
Brand names for thiamethoxam include: Actara, Cruiser, Helix, Platinum, Centric.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Garlic Day

I wasn't even planning to grow garlic this year, but I've just planted some garlic this morning. And it felt good. It felt like I was breaking the law, in fact. Well, sort of.

I had just completed my usual morning rounds of the garden, watering this and that pot, picking a few weeds, checking how things are going. I wandered back into the kitchen to wash a freshly harvested radish or two and I spotted in our wire garlic and onion basket a head of garlic which was sprouting its head off. Why not plant them out and see what happens?

That's the 'law-breaking' bit. Law 1: might be a bit early for garlic, still too warm. Law 2: only plant varieties suited to your climate. Law 3: don't tell me, please don't tell me it's common, vulgar Woolies supermarket garlic? Yep, it's from Woolies, and that means it's probably from Mexico, Chile, Argentina and various other places they get garlic from. Well, at least it isn't the bleached-white, bland, awful Chinese garlic which all the horrified garlic aficionados bang on about (and which is disappearing fairly rapidly from our supermarket shelves, anyway).

Here they are: healthy fat little people just bursting with life.

It was easy enough to find a spot for them, as the curly parsley
was on the way out. So after clearing that space and several
good minutes of digging with my nifty Niwashi digger, I planted
each bulb into a shallow trench, just shallow enough that when
I backfilled with soil, the top tip of the shoot was at soil level.

A side dressing of chicken poo and mulch of sugar cane.

Water in well with a watering can, some
Seasol (seaweed, to stimulate root growth) in a
few days from now, and so my unexpected
little law-breaking Garlic Day patch is born.
I'm increasingly attracted to the idea of growing food plants from the food plants you're already eating. Sometimes it's not a good idea. Supermarket tomatoes, for instance, are mostly what they call 'F1 Hybrids' and their seeds won't produce the same tomatoes you bought. But buying heirloom tomatoes from an organic farmer's market and sowing their seeds should work perfectly well.

Some other foods sold in supermarkets would be worth harvesting seeds from. Chillies are a good example. Seeds of supermarket Habaneros and JalapeƱos will produce Habaneros and Jalapenos next season. I must explore this idea further, next spring. In the meantime, today is Garlic Day, and I look forward to watching how things progress over the coming autumn, winter and spring.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Seedy pots

When we did the makeover of our garden in early spring last year, one of the things I wanted to do was reduce the number of things growing in pots here. I had dozens of them, a lot of them succulents. And so I guess, with my succulent garden now planted in the ground, I have reduced pot numbers markedly. But they're making a comeback! I seem to be growing more things in pots again. Right now it's herbs and salad greens which  are coming up from seed, in a gaggle of pots parked here and there.

I guess this is because pots have so many attractions. For one thing they contain the size of your 'patch' of whatever you are growing. And secondly, the soil is nice, really nice (well, for a while at least). Thirdly, you can move pots around, first to the gentle, dappled sun/shade when they are baby seedlings making a start in life, then out into the open sunshine to catch the autumn warmth once they're growing well. So far, almost everything has gone to plan, except for one hitch which was all my fault. Here's the story so far...

So-called 'micro-green salad mix' which is actually normal
salad mix. The 'micro-green' bit is where you harvest these things
young, nothing else. For lunch today I'll be getting out the
scissors and snipping off enough to go in a sandwich.

This is the exciting action shot of how it all looked once I had
sowed the seeds, back on March 18 this year.
And this is what I sowed: coriander, chervil, flat-leaf parsley
and those 'micro-greens', a freebie from BBY magazine.

Five weeks later and the parsley is doing really well. The first
trick with the slow-to-germinate parsley seed is to soak them
in boiling water first (just put the seed in a bowl, pour over
the boiling water, and leave them there until the water is cool.)
Instead of taking the usual three or four weeks to sprout, they
were up in two weeks, and they've been growing eagerly ever
since. The other trick with parsley is to grow them from seed,
not seedlings. Parsley belongs to the Apiaceae family of plants,
which also includes carrots, chervil and parsnips. All of them like
to send down long taproots and they hate to be interrupted! They
being transplanted as seedlings. When you grow parsley
from transplanted seedlings they might survive OK (but they
can have a higher failure rate, especially in warm weather) and they
also tend to go to seed more rapidly than plants raised from seed. 

Coriander is another one that belongs to the parsley family,
and it does better from seed, too. It also does better in gardens
here in Sydney in winter. The slower growth rate now suits
coriander fine, and this pot will last for months. If you grow
coriander in a hotter climate you need to do it like a farmer,
sowing then harvesting the whole plant six weeks later, then
replanting and harvesting six weeks later, and so on. In hot
weather, if you let the plants grow on, the leaves change from
broad and flat to spindly, then they flower (very prettily) then
they set seed, all in very rapid succession. So the trick to being
a lazy backyard coriander grower, who just wants some leaves
on hand most of the time, is to grow it from seed in autumn.

The chervil is coming up but lagging behind, and that's entirely
my fault. Why? Well, if I had bothered to look at the seed
packet I might have noticed that my seeds were well past their
'use-by' date, and none of the original batch came up. So I
re-ordered another packet of seeds from The Italian Gardener,
they arrived in the mail a few days later, and about 10 days
later the seeds came up and they've been doing fine ever since.
Apart from its delicate, mildly aniseedy flavour, the great thing
about chervil is that is isn't a 'sun-hog'. If your garden isn't
as ideally sunny as you'd like it to be, chervil does well on
half-day sun rations. More people should grow it. We love it
with steamed vegetables, finely chopped and added just
before serving. It transforms steamed zucchini.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A good year for frangipani

Our problem child has blossomed into a talented teenager this year. Though it has been a part of our garden for several years now, our frangipani tree has never been entirely happy here. But this year everything has changed. It has grown like mad, it's still covered in leaves and those wonderfully fragrant, pretty yellow and white tropical blooms. And most importantly from my gardener's point of view, it's very healthy.

I guess you could say it has been a good year for frangipanis. But these plants love Sydney, and Sydney loves them. They're in gardens everywhere, and the secret to growing them is benign neglect (plus sunshine). Just let them get on with it and they'll be fine, the experts told me. All that advice did was give me gardener's guilt, because mine wasn't healthy and happy. How could I be doing something wrong when I wasn't doing anything?

Still covered in foliage and new flowers still coming on,
it was a fragrant delight to take a few photos of it this morning.

We've grown it from a cutting taken from a workmate, Krissy's,
Sydney garden, in 2007. Krissy's renovations to her house
meant their old frangipani tree had to go. Lots of people
received cuttings, so that one tree is now the parent of many.
This is how it looked when we planted it
out as a big cutting in September 2008.
It had been in our hands for about a year
by this stage, and had grown well.

Since then it has of course grown, but ever so slowly. A few
branches had to be cut off, due to a dieback running up the trunk.
As well as the dieback, in the wet summers of 2010-11 and
2011-12, the leaves were covered in 'rust', a fungal disease.
Spraying it with a product called eco-fungicide, which is
potassium bicarbonate, helped to ease the rust, but the
growth rate was very slow. This year, a hot one, everything
has changed. Pictured above is the bright green, smooth
new growth, which must be at least 30cm on every branch.
Frangipanis are known as slow-growers, but this hot summer
of 2012-13 has made our frangi feel like it's in tropical
Darwin, not middling temperate old Sydney Town.
No-one's complaining, of course. The tree is happy and so are
we. We're halfway through autumn and this deciduous tree is
not going to let go of its leaves any time soon.
The basics of caring for a frangipani, as told to me by several expert gardeners I've been so very lucky to work with, is not to give them extra water, and not to feed them, either. All that was suggested was that I give it some Seasol (for our overseas readers, that's a seaweed-based organic liquid plant tonic) in the first few years, to encourage the roots to grow. And that was it.

I have stuck to the policy of no extra food or water, but when you see a plant suffering with fungal diseases, its foliage covered in the tiny pustules of rust, it's hard to practise benign neglect. That's the thing we so many gardeners like me. We're busy-bodies. We like interfering. We can't help ourselves. And it's all the more chronic when you just love a plant so much, and frangipani is definitely one of the garden plants Pammy and I love the most. So it's very pleasing to see a whole season of continued neglect paying off at last!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Just a bit Ratty

I can thank Kenneth Grahame's wonderful children's book 'Wind in the Willows' for setting me off, early on in life, with a relatively fond view of rats, because my favourite character in that captivating book was Ratty. Good old Ratty, he was the sensible, hospitable one, although he did let fools know what he thought of them. (In descending order I liked Badger next, then Mole, but I could barely tolerate acknowledging Toad of Toad Hall as a friend at all, I'm afraid.)

However, I'm not really here to discuss children's lit today, but rather to discuss rats, and rats in backyards in particular. I just thought an image of Ratty and Mole (the classic original image drawn by EH Shepard) rowing on the river would be a much nicer way to start things off.

Ratty: "There is nothing, absolutely nothing so much worth doing
 as messing around in boats." Apparently, Ratty was a water
rat – and there's more on his Australian cousin later on.
Enough of fond memories of Ratty for the moment... yesterday I had a huge day in the garden simply weeding, and weeding, and doing more weeding then mulching. Cup of tea around 3pm, feet up with a book overlooking the newly laid mulch... and out from the shrubbery prances a young brown rat, exploring the smell-rich mulch, sniffing, pawing at it. At that point I think I twitched a nerve fibre and Amateur Ratty (as I'll call him/her) zotted back into the thicket of gingers in a flash. Why do I think Amateur Ratty was a Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)?  Well, there are ways to tell rats apart.

The main way to tell a Brown Rat (above) from a Black Rat (below) is
the tail length. A Brown Rat's tail isn't as long as its own body...

The tail of a Black Rat (Rattus rattus) is thin and long, much longer
than its body. Their ears are different, and colours vary too, but
given that you often just get a glimpse of them, keep an eye on the tail
length and you'll have an idea who is visiting your backyard.

What, no other possible contenders? Well, not in Australian suburbia. Any rats you see in city and suburban backyards are almost certainly either introduced Black or Brown Rats. Yes, native Bush Rats do exist, but they stay in our bushland areas, in dense forests in fact. They are nocturnal creatures for starters, so if you see a rat in broad daylight in your garden, it's very unlikely it's a Bush Rat, even if you live near bushland. In gardens, you could see either Black or Brown rats, but inside houses any rats you see are most likely to be Black rats, which like being indoors much more than Brown Rats do. The Australian Museum has some great fact sheets on rats, if you're interested. Here's the one on Brown Rats, and the one on Black Rats.

Now, as it happens, one native rat is fairly regularly seen in Sydney, and it's this person pictured below, the Water Rat, Hydromys chrysogaster. Sydney Harbour and its foreshores is where you see them, and they're wonderful creatures.

For starters, these are whoppers compared to Black or Brown
rats, much bigger. They also have that white tip on their tail,
and they have webbed feet at the rear.
In the water they zoom along, with those webbed feet doing all
the hard work. Several times I have been at the water's edge
both Harbourside and on inland lakes, and spotted a water rat
making its way to the bank. I love to watch them: they leave a very
good wake behind them as they confidently swim to their
destination. If you ever see a rat in the water, stop and watch,
as it's almost certainly this marvellous native animal.
This is who so many nature-loving Aussie gardeners secretly
wish is visiting their backyards – the native Bush Rat,
Rattus fuscipes. A shy person of nocturnal habits, it would
never dare go near a house. You can read more about it from
the Australian Museum website listing on it, from which I
'borrowed' this photo, you might also notice. There is a pilot
project in suburban Mosman in Sydney to re-release bush
rats into bushland there, so I guess you could say there are
Bush Rats in Sydney, but most likely not in your garden.
This other native animal is seen in backyards and mistaken
as a Black/Brown rat or a Bush Rat, and it's none of the above.
It's not even a rodent, it's a Brown Antechinus and it's a
marsupial. The big giveaway is the feet: count the digits on
the Antechinus' feet and there are five (four 'toes' and an
extra thumb-like one). Check out the rat photos higher up
and they have just four tootsies. So, next time you see a little
furry person in your backyard, ask it to hold still while you
count its toes. Count to five, go "ahhhh". Count to four, scream!
Just kidding folks, but that's the easiest way to spot the difference
(although the Antechinus is kinda pointy-ended, isn't it?)
By coincidence, only yesterday one of my favourite blogs, Lanie's 'Edible Urban Garden' featured a posting by Lanie on the topic of rats visiting her backyard. She spotted her rat in her persimmon tree. Classic confident Brown Rat behaviour most likely — out there, in the open, good climber, enjoying the fruits of all of Lanie's hard work. What a rat!

I prefer it that my rats go boating with their friends, actually, but rats are just another creature visiting our garden, and no matter where you live in urban areas worldwide there's a probably a rat that regularly visits your backyard, whether you like it or not.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fading to brown

Anyone who has grown the fussier Australian native plants knows how it goes. One week it's apparently healthy and green, defying the experts who said it'd never last. Then one morning you notice just a hint of brown here and there. Oh no! And few days later the browns have taken over, and then this morning, this...

After four years of loyal service, our Acacia cognata 'Limelight'
has lost its glow, and is on the way out. This is one of Pammy's
plants and so I'm under strict instructions to go get another one.
She loves this plant, so do I, and it's a bit of a mystery why it
has curled up its toes now. Maybe the long, hot summer and the
humid hot start to autumn was too much for it? 

Across the pathway is another picture in brown tones, but this
is exactly how Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is meant to look. It started
out pale pink several weeks ago and slowly but surely it has
faded to these rather pretty browns. In a garden full of greens,
grey-blues, reds and more greens, this patch of brown pom poms
has been an eye-catching delight for me every morning when I
look out from the house to the garden. I never thought I'd like
a bit of brown the way I do now.
Call me a glutton for punishment, but I'm off to buy our next Acacia cognata 'Limelight' this morning. The first one was planted back in April 2009, so for this notoriously fickle native, a career of four years is pretty good going. As for the Sedumn 'Autumn Joy', its next stop is to die off in all its deciduous glory, withering down to the ground for a winter sleep, then awaking to do it all again next spring. 

In a garden, life always goes on, even though beloved plants come and go.