Friday, September 27, 2013

Spicing up the herb garden

I've been waiting for a chance to do an update on my herb garden, as it has changed a lot in the last year. The big change is that almost everything is growing in pots now, instead of in the ground. Now is the perfect time for the update for two very good reasons. The first is that it's spring, so everything is growing well and looks nice for photos. 

The second reason is that a new book on herbs and spices, by Don Burke, is going on sale next week, and as I worked behind the scenes helping Don to put the book together, I want to tell you all about it. Pictured below is the book cover, but I'll tell you all about it at the end of this blog post. Before my not-very-amateur burst of rampant commercialism, it's onto my potted herb garden show-and tell.

French tarragon is happy as larry in its new, wider pot,
replanted there during midwinter when it was just a bunch
of snoozing bare roots and runners. It has such a nice
mildly aniseedy flavour that is heaven with chicken, or eggs.

Oregano, grown from seed just on a whim, looking lovely
right now. It was looking straggly about six weeks ago, so
I cut it back all over and now it's at its finest. That's the big
secret with herbs in general, but potted herbs in particular:
cut them back often, a light cut once a month works wonders.
Chives in front, lemon thyme left and sage in flower, right.
The sage is from my original in-the-ground mother plant. I dug
up a section with a rootball and potted that up. It took a while to
bounce back, but it's happy now in its terracotta pot.
Another 'sprog of mum' plant, my common thyme is a roots-
and-all chunk of the former large mother plant, replanted and
doing well in a wide, shallow pot. This is one plant that I
cut back very regularly, to keep it low, dense and bushy.
The rosemary is a cutting grown from the monster size parent,
and I am cruelly trimming it to encourage dense, low growth,
as it can grow to silly sizes if you let it go unchecked. Rosemary
has such a strong flavour you never need much in any dish.
Moist mint is happy mint. I have two pots here, one with common
mint, the other with spearmint, and both need major cutbacks
about three or four times a year. I cut the whole plants down
to pot-rim level, back to just stumps, then give it a good feed.
I love the look of the two pots when they're in their pomp.
I still have a few herbs in the ground, including this chervil,
which I didn't plant here. It turns out that chervil is so happy
here it's behaving like a weed and self-seeding all over the
place. It has a lovely, light aniseedy flavour.
Also in the ground and "on the way out" is this patch of
coriander, which is starting to go to seed as the weather
warms up. The patch has been here for a few months now,
as coriander loves our mild winters the best. That's the
time to grow it here in Sydney. If you grow it in summer,
you'll have to sow, grow and harvest three or four crops
each summer season, as it goes from leafy to seedy in
no time at all during steadily hot summer weather.
That's enough for my own personal update on the herb patch. It's time to show you Don's new book, priced at $29.95 in hardcover, which goes on sale on October 1. It's published by New Holland Publishers, is 304 pages long and has entries on virtually every useful herb and spice you can think of, plus lots that you might not have heard of. Here's the cover.

With only a few exceptions, each herb is covered in what's called a 'double-page-spread' of two open, facing pages. Pam did some of the illustrations used in the book, and my wide-ranging contribution to Don's text goes under the heading of "editorial consultant". Don loves to get down to the practical nitty-gritty of gardening, so he offers tips on how to grow each herb, best varieties, how to harvest and dry or prepare it, then how best to use it in the kitchen. He also quite frankly tells you whether it's worthwhile trying to grow each herb or spice in the garden (as some are hopelessly impractical to grow in backyards while others are dead-easy). 

And Don loves a good debunking of myths, too. This is a no-mumbo-jumbo book! Instead of mindlessly repeating all the ancient myths about herbs and spices being good for curing ague, plague or whatever, he's gone straight to modern scientific research to find out whether each herb really is beneficial or not. (The good news is that many are very useful.) However, this is also where Don's book is full of new, fresh info that might contradict some of the very unscientific mumbo-jumbo that has been long attributed to the healing powers of various herbs and spices. Some traditional 'medicinal' herbs are actually unsafe for human consumption, and several are simply useless. While researching this subject area I was struck by how many herb experts writing their books had unquestioningly just repeated the traditional folk myths about the medicinal benefits of herbs and spices. So I say good on you Don for turning to science for your evidence in this area. I learned a lot at this stage of the project.

And did I tell you it's full of delicious recipes and gorgeous colour photos? And if you like to brew interesting cups of tea we've got the tea brewing recipes for you too.

OK, so I am a bit biased, but it's a new kind of herb and spice book, a deliciously practical one. A few enjoyable months of my working life went into helping Don research and prepare the text for this book, and I am very pleased with how it has turned out. Go check it out if you can. 

I've noticed that while it doesn't 'officially' go on sale until October 1, it's already up and available for pre-order on websites such as Amazon, the ABC Shop site here in Australia, and numerous other book sellers' websites. Just search for 'Herbs & Spices' by Don Burke and you'll find it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Water babies

Wednesday morning they looked like they would flower sometime next week, and they were in full bloom two days later, on Friday morning. My Louisiana iris are water babies in a hurry this year, bursting into bloom both fast and early. Last year they came out a week later than this (Sept 28), and in 2010 it was two weeks later, on October 6. And yes, I have blogged about both flowerings (here for 2010) and (here for 2012). We were in the USA for the 2011 flowering and, very sadly, missed it. However, those earlier postings have probably said everything I have to say about our gorgeous blue Louisiana iris, so this time round I'll let 10 photos taken this morning tell the full story of how lovely these flowering pond plants are. Glad they're part of my garden, and happy here. They need next to no care, by the way.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Nesting instincts

I love bird's nests, they're one of the construction miracles of nature, but recently I found a vacated "modernist" nest which shows how some birds are adapting to life in the heavily urbanised 21st-century city.

I found this one in a tangle of cardamom and ginger plants,
which is not where I expected to find one. However, the tangle
is directly beneath one of our olive trees, so perhaps it fell
from that more predictable spot. Viewed from above it looked
like a pretty normal nest, a finely woven dish of plant fibres.

I brought the nest back to the outdoor table under our pergola
to show it to Pammy, who will probably do a painting of it
one day, and by chance the nest was flipped over in a gust
of wind, to reveal a very plasticky surprise below.

I love the non-discriminatory attitude of birds to nest-building
materials. When they discovered the thin shreds of plastic I
imagine they thought "beauty, this stuff is light, strong, can be
woven easily to form a base, fantastic!". I know, I know,
plastic bags kill birds such as seagulls, penguins and many
others in huge numbers, but this use of plastic just shows that
the modern urban world interacts with the nautral world
not just in one way, but in a complex variety of ways, and
the creatures which adapt the best have the best chance of
reproducing and surviving. Sadly, that's Darwin for you.
I don't know which species of bird built this nest, but I never
fail to marvel at their delicate beauty and complexity. I would
much rather discover a nest built entirely of plant fibres, but
above all else I am glad to know that several families of birds
find our garden a safe enough haven to start a family here.

Hopefully the ring of down around the nest is a sign that
the babies hatched, grew up and made it into the flying club.
The thing that always gets me about bird's nests is the way that each species is hard-wired to construct a certain style of nest from particular materials. The native peewee (or pied mudlark) for example, is pre-programmed to build a very tidy nest from packed mud. In her current art show, Pam has done a painting of one American warbler's nest, which is built as a hanging basket of Spanish moss suspended in mid-air.

In the case of our found nest, the bird's hard-wiring must include a section which is a bit more laissez-faire, saying "find whatever materials you can which can be woven into a shallow dish". I just hope that the little guys made it into the world. And they are free to crap on our clothesline if they like, and chomp our figs and strawberries too. I'll do whatever I can to not get in their way (or wreck the joint) when they're in homemaking mode, and hopefully life will go on this way for many more years.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Is my soil healthy?

There was such an interesting letter in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning that I thought all vegetable growers who missed it might want to know what was said.

To set the scene briefly, last Saturday the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story entitled "Lead threat to children from home vegies", accompanied by a photo of backyard soil testing. The gist of the story was worrying, and probably confirmed the worries of many people, especially those in older inner-city areas. What's in the soil? Is there lead? Other dodgy chemicals from days gone by which still have a thousand years to go before they break down? Here's that story (click on the image and it should come up bigger if you are not reading this post via your email).

Then, this Tuesday morning, a letter from Emeritus Professor Brian Gulson of Macquarie University appeared, suggesting a less worrying interpretation of the "lead in soils" issue. Here's the professor's letter.

Hopefully you can read the professor's letter, but the gist of it is that lead in soils doesn't transfer easily into vegetables grown in those soils. He does mention that lead in the air can deposit on leafy vegies such as lettuce and spinach, but that good washing before cooking should remove that lead. He also goes on to conclude that "garden produce is not the problem" (with lead in children).

Living in an area on the edge of the inner-cty, I've always been interested in the health of my soil, and from simple historical research I know that my local area was farmland before it was turned into housing land. It was never industrial land. Readers of this blog in inner-city areas might have a different history of land use for their plot of ground.

While the professor's letter offers some research-based evidence, I do have a couple of thoughts on this issue that I would like to share.

1. If you are worried about your soil's health, the professor's letter provides some evidence for a calmer approach.
2. If you have a gut feeling that your soil isn't trustworthy, then you have two good, clear choices. Either (a) grow your produce in large pots of potting mix, or (b) grow your produce in raised garden beds. A raised bed 30cm high is adequate for most vegies.
3. I did have a conversation with a soil scientist a while back about this issue, and he did mention that leafy vegies such as silver beet, spinach, Asian greens and lettuce do "suck up" minerals and nutrients from the soil at a much faster rate that fruiting veg (tomatoes, chillies, capsicums) or root veg (potatoes, carrots, beetroot).

So, if my soil scientist is right, perhaps you could grow your fruiting vegies and root vegies in your soil, and your leafy greens in pots or raised beds?

FInally, I'm very conscious of the fact that most of the "contaminants" in my organic urban garden come here via the air, from car and truck exhausts, planes zooming overhead, and polluted city air in general. The main thing to do in this case is thoroughly wash everything you grow at home before eating it.

I hope some of this helps, but I do think that the scare stories the Herald and other newspapers regularly run on all sorts of health issues cause more anxiety – a major modern health problem – and are in themselves a health hazard.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mossy imaginings

Pammy and I had such an exciting time last Friday night, as it was the opening night of the art exhibition called "31 Days" at Gallery Red in Glebe, in which Pam was one of the team of artists who all toiled like mad through the 31 days of July, producing a painting a day for those 31 days. As Pam's theme was based around a plant growing here in our garden – Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) – I thought that readers of this blog would be interested to see some of the work my talented girl does, plus learn a bit about Pam's interest in Spanish moss.

Let's start things off with the most "botanical" of Pam's
pieces, this study of the minuscule flowers of the Spanish
moss plant. In real life the blooms are specks, just an eighth
of an inch long, maybe a quarter inch from side to side.
This is a watercolour, the medium she works in very
often, but she does work in a variety of media.
Here's a real-life photo of the Spanish moss blooms. If you
know this plant, you'll be able to appreciate how small these
tiny blooms are. Here in Sydney it flowers in late spring,
in late October and early November.
No, this isn't our garden! It's a photo Pam took in the expansive
grounds of an historic plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, which
is fully preserved, including not only the mansion in which the
owners lived, but also all the slave cottages, barns and other
working buildings. The huge Southern Live Oak trees there
all dripped with Spanish moss. 
Pammy has always been fascinated by this plant, and even before we went to the USA in 2011 she had imagined what it was going to look like. When we arrived at the plantation in Natchez she had one of those "this is it, this is the place that was in my dream" kind of moments. Needless to say we had an incredible day there, wandering around, taking lots of photos and just generally taking the whole ambience deep into our memories.

For the 31 Days exhibition, Pammy has created a beauitfully varied visual ode to Spanish moss, including its place in native American, Cajun and Creole cultures (for example, Spanish moss is the traditional stuffing material for voodoo dolls). And the artist in her just sees Spanish moss in different ways. Here are three more images from her show, which might give you some idea of all the different ways Spanish moss has inspired her.

This is one of Pam's voodoo dolls. On the left panel is
the basics of making one (two sticks, add moss) and
on the right is the prettiest voodoo doll in Sydney.
Virtually everyone I know thinks that voodoo dolls
are only for sticking pins into, for people you want to
"hex", but we have learned that voodoo dolls have many
other uses, including beneficial ones in the magical
and healing practices of the Creole people of the
Caribbean region and Louisiana.  
Thinking up painting titles isn't always easy, but Pam
decided that "Mass Moss" works for this. Works for me!

A zillion little pen dots later and Pam called this one
"Living and Breathing". It's one of my favourites from the
whole exhibition. I can't quite grasp the levels of patience and
precision needed to do this, and all within the hectic schedule
of pumping out a painting a day for 31 days in succession. 

So, if you live in Sydney and want to see not only Pam's art but the utterly different and equally creative works of half a dozen other Sydney artists, pop along to Gallery Red, at shop 11, 131-145 Glebe Point Road and enjoy the show. "31 Days" is on until October 1. It's open Monday-Friday 10-5, Saturdays 10-3, but it's closed on Sundays. Here's their Facebook page. 

Finally, I thought I should also show you this, which is another
little hobby of mine, when I'm not gardening. I collect little
model cars (from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s mostly)
and I like to create dioramas of these cars in real life situations,
using Photoshop to form the images. So, inspired by Pam's
love of Spanish moss, I took one of the photos from our Natchez
plantation, added a 1957 Studebaker Silver Hawk and a couple
of picnickers, and created my "Picnic in Natchez" diorama.
One of these days Pammy and I will be going back to the USA and hopefully we'll visit Natchez again, too. Not sure if we'll be driving a '57 Studebaker, but we will take a picnic basket, spread out a rug and have another lovely day together under the ethereal tresses of Spanish moss.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Spring's other colours

I know I did a post only recently about one succulent's lovely colours at this time of year (Senecio jacobensii), but I think the topic is worth another quick visit just because everything in the succulent patch is celebrating spring through colour.

Crassula 'Campfire' looks like it was made for the lolly shop.

I love a good "black", especially when it's not
really black but just a very dark shade of another
colour, so dark that in low light it looks black.
Yet in the bright afternoon sunshine Aeonium
'Schwartzkopf' reveals itself to be the product
of a very fine winery specialising in shiraz.

First prize for good, obvious names goes to the
person who decided that this cultivar of
Kalanchoe orygalis should be called 'Copper
Spoons'. This living rust never sleeps.

The marketing people have called Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, with
its big, red-rimmed leaves 'Flapjacks' but that name has never
particularly appealed to me. I prefer lipstick hippos.
Last, and probably least, in this colourful company is this
little green-leafed sedum with the red tips, whose small clusters
of daisy flowers is a cheerful sight this morning. 
As we move into the second year of our new succulent garden, with the plants all liberated from their pots and now living in sandy soil, I can't help but think that this is something that I should have done years ago. You can't undo the past, so I am simply glad that I have now done it, as almost every plant here is much happier. And the language that they speak is colour.