Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy little pumpkins

I posted this photo (below) of my latest (ie, second-ever) effort at pumpkin-carving on Facebook last night, and my wonderful niece Lisa, who's been raising her family with her husband Ken in Calgary, Canada these last two and a half decades, made the comment that even though she's been living all that time in Canada, where they celebrate Halloween with gusto, she's still not into it. Calls herself the Halloween Grinch. If you knew what a sweet person Lisa is, the last word to ever describe her would be 'Grinch'. The only "G" word she answers to now is "granny", because she is one, but Grinch she ain't.

That's the thing about Halloween in Australia. The older generations not only are not into it, many of them are very actively "bah humbug" about it. It wasn't part of their childhood, so they often say the current batch of little Aussie kids (most of whom love celebrating Halloween) can bugger off. This attitude usually comes parcelled up with a dose of anti-Americanism, to give it a bit of ideological or political respectability (even though Halloween's traditions originated in Ireland and parts of Scotland). 

After Pammy and I spent all of October 2011 in the USA, we changed our minds about Halloween. We loved the way people everywhere we went treated it as a whole month-long harvest festival. Houses were decorated weeks in advance of the 31st, either with the traditional 'harvest' themes of haybales, pumpkins and corn cobs; or the 'spooky' themes of ghosts, skeletons, witches etc. And I guess the fact that we celebrated our first real Halloween in Times Square, New York was the perfect way to wrap our change in attitude to Halloween with fond memories that are still happy and vivid to this day.

However, apart from getting to know and appreciate Halloween for what it really is, I have another reason to carve pumpkins and buy Chupachups to give away to the kids who come knocking at our door tonight. 

It's simply that I feel sorry for our kids, in general, in how 'un-free' they are these days. My childhood might have lacked Halloween but I had so much freedom to wander, to explore the local bushland and to live out my childhood fantasies of cowboys and indians and anything else that seemed like dangerous fun that was on TV back then. By comparison, kids are on a tight leash because the consensus is that this is a more dangerous world these days. Sad but true, but I do think urban kids in particular are missing out on the freedoms I knew, and that's why I sometimes feel sorry for the little ones.

So I see Halloween as a rare chance for kids to wander around their neighbourhood with their parents (if they're little) in the evening, or at night by themselves (if they're a bit older). In many cases it's the closest thing to a community event for kids that happens in ordinary suburban streets. It gives the littlies a chance to do something very different for one night a year. And just because this new 'tradition' wasn't part of my childhood isn't reason enough for me to say "bah humbug go away". I'd rather say "welcome, Happy Halloween kids, have a great night." 

Finally, to finish, my second-ever attempt at baked pumpkin seeds.
This year, as I did last year, I saved the mass of pumpkin seeds
which is mostly what you find inside a hollow 'Jack O Lantern'.
pumpkin. Then I washed them to get the stringy flesh off, and
dried them for an hour or so on paper towels. Meanwhile I turned
on the oven to 140°C (285°F) to preheat fully.
Then I put the seeds in a bowl, sprayed them with olive oil
and sprinkled on a spice mix. Last year I simply used garlic
salt and the results were a bit bland. This year I used totally
non-traditional Moroccan seasoning mix, and for all these seeds
only a teaspoon or so is necessary. Not too much. I spread them
out on a sheet of baking paper in a single layer, then baked
them at 140°C for 25 minutes. This year's batch was much
nicer, crunchy and more-ish to eat. So it isn't just the kids who
get to have fun around Halloween time.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Spanish flower shows

The first time I spotted a Spanish moss flower it was on a computer screen. I had taken some pix of my Spanish moss plant and noted tiny green flecks on the screen image as I uploaded them to my Mac. I hadn't noticed them out in the garden while taking the photos. So I headed back outside and discovered the source of the green flecks: teensy little perfectly formed flowers in all their micro glory. That was back in October one year, so now every October Pammy and I are on the lookout for our smallest flower show to begin. 

This is the best way I could think of to show you how tiny the
flowers are on Spanish moss. That lump of lumber in the
foreground is an ordinary matchstick. We're talking tiny
flowers here, folks.

Regular readers of our blog will know that my girl Pammy
is a botanical artist, and this is her watercolour painting of
a Spanish moss bloom which will be in her solo exhibition that
runs from December 4, 2013 to January 8 at Eden Gardens in
North Ryde, Sydney. At the end of this blog posting you can
find all the details of Pam's exhibition. We'd love everyone
to come along to the opening on Sunday, December 8.
Until then, I just wanted to show you a few more images of this fascinating plant, whose botanical name is Tillandsia usneoides. Its common names of Spanish moss and old man's beard paint the picture well. This is one of the so-called 'air plants' because it doesn't need soil to grow in. It just hangs from the boughs and branches of trees and gets all its nutrients from the air, the rain and general humidity. Presumably it also gets some of the nutrient-rich run-off from the trees which host its existence. And no, it's not a parasite plant. It just hitches a ride. We saw it everywhere we went as we travelled around the Southern USA back in 2011, and it's one of the special plants in our garden, pretty in its own right but also full of sweet memories.

This photo above, and the one below, show the basic form
of the tiny flowers.

Out in the garden from this far away (about
four feet) you'd never notice the blooms.
There is a bloom in this photo, roughly
in the centre of the shot. Can you see it?
Surely you can see it now?
Once you spot an individual bloom it seems as pretty as any
flower a hundred times larger, and the world of fine, grey
strands in which it lives is a magical addition to the scene.

Now, here's the details of Pam's exhibition: over to you, Pammy...

You can see this close-up watercolour painting of a Spanish moss flower along with 50 other artworks inspired by plants and the natural world featured in my upcoming solo exhibition: “Inspiration & Observation”.
The exhibition will run from 4 December 2013 to 8 January 2014 in the Eden Gardens Art Gallery at the Eden Gardens Garden Centre located at 301-307 Lane Cove Road, North Ryde:
Jamie and I will be attending the exhibition opening from 2-4pm on Sunday December 8, so come along to say hello and maybe pick up an original Christmas gift for a friend, family member or yourself!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nigella's secret admirer

I've been patiently waiting for months for this day to arrive, when our love-in-a-mist (Nigella) plants, sown from seed last autumn, finally burst into spring bloom. So, diligent little gardening blogger that I am, camera in hand, I trotted out this morning to take a few photos of these delicate pretties, only to find another admirer already in residence, sipping on some nigella nectar. 

This little person is definitely not a bee, nor is it a fruit fly or
a wasp, but I wasn't quite sure who he or she is.
Fortunately for me this garden visitor was not the flighty,
frantic kind of operator that your normal honeybee is. Instead,
it stayed in place, long enough for me to manage a few good
ID shots. Later, I Googled away and soon discovered its name
(I think...): it's a wasp-mimicking hoverfly, an insect that's found
in gardens Australia-wide. I only say "I think" because it could
also be a black-banded hoverfly. I'll leave the correct identification
up to the entomologists.

Almost lost in the hubbub of our pretty visitor, the love-in-a-mist
blooms are as lovely as ever, as this isn't the first time I've grown
or blogged about them. I sowed a packet of Yates Persian Jewels
mix, the only nigella seeds I could find, and a very parsimonious
packet of not-many seeds it was too, so to make sure of a
decent spring show I bought and sowed another packet soon after.
The Persian Jewels mix is meant to
include white, blue and pink but so far
there have been no pinks at all.
The plants themselves are unimpressive
but dainty, multi-branched with a flower
head at the end of each fine stem, on
plants about 50cm high. These colourful
flowering types aren't the variety of Nigella
used to supply the spice called Nigella. That
comes from a similar but different plant,
Nigella sativa, which has white flowers
and bigger pods later on, filled with the
small dark black seeds used in cooking.
As for our garden visitor, the wasp mimicking hoverfly (or
maybe it's the black banded hoverfly), this is a garden good-guy
who likes to feast on juicy aphids and scale insects. Even if
it didn't do anything especially useful, it'd still be welcome
here because, as always, I am merely sharing this garden
space with all creatures great and small, I don't own it. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hope & faith

Before the fruit come the flowers, and so this image bears hope of delicious crops to come on our passionfruit vine. Of course bees need to do their thing, but they're busily about every day in our garden, so I'll just need to have faith in them that they'll include these huge "look at me, look at me" passionfruit blooms on their nectar-gathering, pollen-sharing rounds.

Such an extraordinary flower, the passionfruit,
the Baz Luhrmann of fruit blooms.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Patient progress

One of my favourite gardening blog titles is 'Patient Gardener', as that is what I would like to be: a patient gardener. Shame about that, can't have everything I guess. 

However, wandering around my garden this warm and sunny spring morning I felt such a sense of progress here, there and everywhere, despite much effort on my part. It was then I realised that I must have been experiencing an unfamiliar bout of patience. So that's what patience feels like... it's a sense of knowing calm, a preparedness to wait, without interfering.

Pleased with the spring progress all around me, I popped inside, grabbed my little pocket camera and found all these little patient virtues enjoying the spring sunshine every bit as much as I was.

Mr or Ms butterfly posed for many seconds atop a lettuce leaf
while I fumbled excitedly for the right camera settings. Ta.

I could have sworn I harvested a big bunch of
this perpetual spinach plant for our dinner last
Wednesday, but now it looks just as big as ever.

The brown liquid splodge on this collard green leaf is this
morning's organic liquid feed. I have a few collard greens
plants steadily growing from the seed sown in early September.
The seeds came with my order of my friend Awia Markey's
'Soulicious' eBook cookery book, so I might as well give it
another plug while I'm at it. Check it out here.

I had to get out the tall step-ladder to take this shot of the first
passionfruit flower bud finally making an appearance. The
vine itself is a huge, wall-covering thing, but it's all greenery
and no flowers or fruit. Hopefully, if I'm patient and leave it
alone, it will produce many flowers and many fruit and we can
all live happily, deliciously, ever after.

I'm not sure why my Thai makrut lime looked
so ordinary all through winter, as it wasn't a
cold winter at all – quite the opposite in fact.
Regular feeds and cutting off the ugly bits has
suddenly borne flowers and fruit this spring.

Baby Turkish Brown figs have appeared on schedule.  

So too the next crop of strawberries from the
self-sprouted patch which came up out of the
compost. Such a healthy plant, these, easily
the most vigorous strawbs I've ever seen here.

This year I'm limiting tomato production to just a couple of
pots of cherry tomatoes, raised from seed. After a slow start
they're now 50% bigger than they were last weekend, or so
it seems.

Another "sown-from-seed" planting done last autumn, this is
the first love-in-a-mist (Nigella) flower to come out. Many more
should follow next week, so I'll post something about them once
the full range of colours makes an appearance.

As usual, the so-called Christmas bush gets its timing
completely out of whack, colouring up in October. 

The deciduous frangipanis must have been
leafless for just five or six weeks this year,
their shortest 'winter' ever.

Finally, as I was up on top of the step ladder
taking that passionfruit flower bud shot,
I had a view of the garden I rarely get, and
so here's the progress on my new fence
screen of four Gardenia magnifica plants.
What's that smell? Of course it's Dynamic
Lifter, that heady chicken manure perfume
that you detect. Look closely and you can see
the odd yellow leaf, a gardenia trademark
that often happens in winter and spring.
Chicken manure is the cure. Works every time.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Gone potty over herbs

After my previous blog posting on the new 'Herbs & Spices' book by Don Burke, as well as my own potted herb garden, one of my regular and most thoughtful commenters, Shivangni Sharma, got in touch with me via email (as she usually does) to ask: "Why did you pot up the herbs? I keep lamenting that I don't have ground to plant them! Is it a blessing to be forced to grow in pots?"

It was perfect timing by Shivangni, as that topic was something I was thinking of discussing in my last posting, but as that post was becoming over-long (as usual) I decided to write something next time.

No, it's not a blessing to be forced to grow herbs in pots, Shivangni. The simple reason I have moved my herbs from being planted in the ground, to pots, is lack of space. My in-ground herb plants were so big and vigorous that they were taking up too much space. I wanted to grow more different plants, especially succulents – and Pammy wanted more flowers – and so with our little garden just 9 metres long and 7 metres wide, the beautiful, fragrant herbs were taking up just a bit too much space. Grown in pots, they still provide more than enough flavour in the kitchen, but they let me grow more succulents, and Pam can have more lavenders, tibouchinas, gardenias and other flowers.

The in-ground herbs are beautiful plants, and if I had a bigger garden that's where I'd always grow every one of them - in the ground. But before I say goodbye to my in-ground herbs for a while at least, just one last look back over the shoulder at them...

Here's a perfectly good reason to grow herbs in the ground.
This photo of my former sage plant (now in a pot) is still one
of my favourites. But herein lies the problem. This is enough
sage for a hundred cooks' needs. It's over one metre wide.
I went mad over curly parsley borders. I filled up the blank
space in the middle with lettuce, silver beet and marigolds,
but my real mission here was a curly parsley border.
The thyme became a marvellous monster.
Only the left third of this plant is growing
in soil; the right-side two-thirds of it is
loving the hot life on the pavers. It thinks
it's in the Mediterranean, with its roots in
a patch of dry, crumbly hillside and the
rest of the plant behaving like a sunbathing
tourist, stretching out and sunning itself
on the rocks. Happy days.
Summer's a lovely time for herbs here, such as this combo
of basil behind a curly parsley border, shallots to the left and
a wall of blue-flowering sage in the background.

So, Shivangni, I have made life a bit harder for myself by growing herbs in pots. They are a lot more work in pots, so much easier in the ground. But my garden is small and so the workload is only relatively greater. The space created by removing the sage and the thyme has made my new succulent garden possible, and Pam has more lavender and tibouchina to enjoy. And we still have enough herbs to cook with.

There's only a few tricks to growing herbs in pots. The main one is the same one for growing herbs in the ground. Constant trimming to keep them bushy is the main game. Don't think of yourself as your herbs' gardener. Think of yourself as their barber. Trim herbs whether you need them for cooking or not. All herbs benefit from regular trims.

The second trick is pot feet under pots. Good soil drainage is vital to keep most herbs happy (with the exception of that cunning swamp fox, mint).

I was almost going to write that the third trick is sunshine, but there's enough exceptions to repeal it as a rule. For example, mint likes semi shade, chervil is the same. While parsley loves sunshine it copes remarkably well with only partial sunshine, so too oregano, and tarragon is a bit of a wilter in the hot afternoon sunshine, so giving it some respite from the strongest Aussie sunbeams is a good thing for it. 

Most of the other popular herbs can be called sun-lovers, and if yours are not getting enough sunshine and they're not doing well in your garden, that's the problem!

Finally, if you missed my previous posting on my current gaggle of potted herbs, which prompted Shivangni's question, it's here. That posting was also a thinly disguised plug for this book, pictured below, which I helped to produce, and which is on sale now. It has so much info about herbs and spices, I'll understand if you'll never have to read my blog postings on herbs again! Actually, I won't understand! It's just the kind of nonsense that salespeople say that they don't really mean. But they say it anyway.