Saturday, February 28, 2015

Last day of summer? Not here it isn't!

February 28 is, for people who put their faith in calendars, the last day of summer here in Sydney. Tomorrow, March 1, is when autumn begins. Well, I don't subscribe to that faith at all.

I prefer the way that summers end at different times each year, the way the season flickers out like a candle with a few late, warm days popping up to surprise you. And then one day you feel that special chill that says "it's autumn now and winter's not far away" and you realise summer ended a while ago, on no particular day.

So, at this stage of the year our garden is of the opinion that summer has several weeks to go before the party's over. It's a time when herbs like to flower, crops turn to gluts and there's plenty of colour wherever you look. I always like the simple little herb flowers in particular.  

Wild rocket flowers at the tips of its thin, gangly stems.

Broccolini is meant to be harvested before it flowers, but this
one beat me to it. I only planted the seedlings three weeks ago!
Basil mint is a tussie mussie of tiny blooms.

Eggplants show off their potato family heritage in a pretty hue.

And they're cropping now in purpley-white abundance.

Every day I pick a handful of red Serrano chillies that I swear
were deep green only the day before.

As well as all the edibles producing their little spots of colour, many ornamentals are a pleasure to be around at the moment.

New Guinea impatiens, which we've mass-planted under the
grevillea in the hope they suppress weeds better than the thick
mulch has abysmally failed to do. So far so good ....
Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream'
Ivy geranium
More ivy geraniums!
Blue salvia

Friday, February 20, 2015

Feeding citrus in pots

After my last posting on feeding citrus, several readers have emailed, and 'Anne at Home' left a comment here, asking about feeding citrus in pots, so here's my combo-reply posting to all you potted citrus persons.

How often do you feed them? Aim for monthly if you can (and that is so much easier said than done. Remembering is the hard part. I try to remember to do it around the first weekend of every month, but even keen-as-mustard-me forgets sometimes.)

Happy Thai limes.
Happy Thai lime in a pot.
How much do you feed them? Not a lot. Light feeds are best. 
• For my "flinging in the rain" I used one handful of chicken poo, which is about 75 grams.
• If I use a liquid organic plant food, about one whole 9-litre can (made up according to the instructions on the pack) per month is plenty for my mature trees in big pots.
• If I use a slow-release food, I apply 3-4 tablespoons of pellets to a 45cm diameter pot, and that lasts 6 months (a good option over Sydney's mild winter, or if you're away travelling).  

What do you feed them? Well, I like to mix it up a bit, but that's not essential. Over the last two years I have fed my potted citrus with:

Dynamic Lifter (organic chicken poo)
Dynamic Lifter Plus (for citrus, organic chicken poo with fruiting and flowering additives)
Osmocote for Fruit and Citrus (slow-release granules, lasting six months per application)
Powerfeed organic-based liquid food for fruit and flowers
Nitrosol organic-based liquid food

The reason for the mixing up of foods is mostly that was what was in my shed at the time, and all of them work fine, so for convenience's sake I just used whatever was there.

Our former cumquat tree, now happily
domiciled at Louise and Antonio's place.
Essential ingredient for cumquat marmalade!
A little bit of potted citrus whys and hows...
It's not just potted citrus that need to be fed more often, but lightly. It's everything in pots. Each time you water a pot, some of the potting mix's nutrients are washed away, out through the drain hole. Eventually all potting mixes completely run out of nutrients, and plants then might start to get unhappy (although some plants are more fussy than others, and citrus are world-class fuss-pots).

So, the big tip is that you need to constantly replenish a potted plant's food supply with little doses of food. Once a month is dandy.

That's why slow-release foods like Osmocote are so excellent for pots. They were originally designed (in California) for potted plants, with the special coating around each little pellet formulated so it releases its doses of nutrients more readily during warm and moist weather (when plants grow best) and releasing its nutrients more slowly when it is cool and dry (when plants grow slowest).

Furthermore, slow-release potted plant foods have the added advantage that you don't have to apply them so often. Depending on the product, they can last either three, six or 12 months. The Osmocote for citrus lasts 6 months.

The only drawback to slow-release foods is that they are not organic. They are just very sophisticated and extremely useful modern chemical plant foods. 

However, if you want your garden to be an organic one, especially your food garden, then I suggest the easiest organic food to apply is the liquid type, where you mix up a capful of concentrate in a can of water, and apply that to the pot. For a mature potted citrus tree, one whole can of 9-litres is plenty for a potted citrus in a big (45cm or more diameter) pot. If you have a smaller baby citrus tree in a pot, use your common sense and halve that amount, maybe even cut it down to one-third. (Mix up a whole can at a time, though, as the leftover liquid foods are great for any flowering food plant, from cucumbers to capsicums, tomatoes to zucchinis, etc etc). 

Hope this helps. Just remember, with the old saying about organic plant foods: "If it doesn't smell bad, then it's not organic!"

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Flinging in the Rain

I'll never match Gene Kelly and his 'Singing in the Rain' routine, but I've just been dancing around our garden, flinging in the rain, and I feel just as good as Gene ever did.

You see, it's citrus fertilising time, and in recent years I've decided to abandon any pretence to sanity for this special occasion, and as soon as I hear the rain falling, I'm out in the garden with my bag of perfumed chicken poo, flinging it under our fruit trees, while the rain does the other important job – watering in the fertiliser while it gently soaks the skin of one slightly crazy old gardener.

As well as this 'Eureka' lemon tree we have
a 'Tahiti' lime and a Thai lime in a pot. They
all get a good feed now. For this lemon tree,
I give it about a dozen generous handfuls.
The potted citrus gets just one handful, but
I feed it several times a year, unlike its big
siblings planted in the ground.
For Australian (and I guess all other Southern Hemisphere gardeners) you should feed your citrus trees twice a year: at the end of summer (late February) and the end of winter (late August).

Now, as for what to use, your choices are many, but I go for chicken poo every time. Here in Australia it's sold under several brand names, but the biggest seller is Dynamic Lifter. Not all Dynamic Lifters are equal, though, so you should check out the labelling before you buy anything, as some products are "organic" and others are "organic-based".

Here's the "organic based" version, which I
spread around the garden this morning. As well
as the chicken poo, it contains non-organic
additives to boost its performance as a fruit
food. So, if you are ideologically pure when it
comes to organic gardening, it's a sin.
But if you are like me, and you practise all the
other organic gardening basics, such as using
compost and mulch to feed the soil and refraining
from the use of any nasty chemical sprays, then
a bit of organic-based rocket fuel to keep fussy
citrus happy isn't such a big sin. So there. 

However, if you are pure of heart and
purpose, an organic saint, there are forms
of manures sold which contain no additives,
and they're all great plant foods. Look for
the organic certification seals on the packet.
If it's the real thing, it should have them.

My excuse is that every second time round, I choose rocket fuel over standard fuel, and I think our citrus like that little boost to their diet.

The moral of the story, though, is that whatever you choose, use it now. You can do it in the sunshine and water the fertiliser in with a hose (the boring but sensible option), or you can do it in the rain, dancing around your garden like a slightly deranged, green-thumbed Gene Kelly. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Panoramic views

Regular readers of this blog might remember a posting I did last November, called Holiday Snapz, where I discovered the cool option on iPhones called "Pano". This allows you to take panoramic shots of sweeping views from beach headlands, lofty mountaintops, etc etc. Back here in our tiny little garden, we're a bit short on sweeping, majestic panoramas, but the iPhone's "Pano" option is perfectly good for taking some very wide angle shots, and that's what I was fooling around with this morning. Here's the results, but first, a little "how to".

To use the "Pano" option, just open up your iPhone's camera, and swipe the options ('time-lapse'; 'video'; 'photo'; 'square'; 'pano') so 'Pano' is selected. Notice in the photo above that you hold the camera upright, in portrait mode. Once you click the big white button on the screen, move the iPhone smoothly from left to right (you'll be amazed how wide the sweep is). Apple helpfully provides a line and an arrow, which moves as you do your pan shot. The idea is to keep the arrow following the line. Messages will pop up on the screen if you get it wrong. Any time you want to end the pano, hit the white button again. I find that if you use the full width of the panorama the image is weirdly distorted, so my preference is to use only about 50-70% of the panorama's full width. There is some distortion but it isn't horrible.

I found it so easy to use that even the first panorama I did last November came out fine. Practise for 5 minutes and you should be a wide-angle expert.

Anyway, on with the show. These photos are quite big (40cm across) so if you click onto the photos they will come up bigger for you on screen. 

General view of the garden this morning. Incredible how very
different it is from the one at the top of this blog, with the 'Garden
Amateur' heading in it, which is now 3 or 4 years old.

Eggplant, lemon grass, basil, frangipani, oregano and parsley.
The frangipani is getting so much bigger!

Succulent patch, geranium land, the newly planted native
patch with a groundcover grevillea and westringias behind.
The terracotta pot is home to a thriving bay tree.

Native patch, curly parsley in front, salvias behind, then mint
and a potted Thai lime on the right. And gnomes aplenty!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Well washed gardens

Pam and I enjoyed a lovely night last night, eating a great meal while sitting outside in the thriving garden of our friends Paul and Jolanda. During the evening, Jolanda's mum, Elina, remarked that the rain that had fallen so plentifully over these last few days had "washed their garden" so it was "sparkling clean", and that comment really hit the spot with me. 

You see, it's one of my secret unscientific hunches about watering gardens and rain. All gardeners will tell you that their gardens seem to spark up magically after rain. No matter how much we stand there with a hose, or leave the sprinklers on, nothing compares to the wondrous effect even just a few minutes of rain can bring. What's inside rainwater that makes it so special?

Well, here's my grand unifying theory about rain's magic effect. As well as providing vast bucketloads of clean water to the soil, I believe rain simply washes the leaves clean.

I think we sometimes forget how "dirty" our urban air is. There's dust and dirt aplenty for starters, but then there's soot and chemical residues from trucks and trains and planes, and whatever awful compounds that lurk within the smoggy air we breathe. All of this lands on our garden foliage and covers it with a fine film of filth.

Rain washes all this away, the leaves breathe freely again and can get on with the main game of how they live: photosynthesis via their leaves. Leaves are plants' lungs, and they need clean, clear lungs to breathe life into themselves.

So, when I'm out in the garden watering plants, I like to wash their leaves as well. I like to pretend that I am not just watering the garden, I am raining down upon our plants from the skies above.

Now, I know the gardening experts will utter cries of "shock, horror" because there's a risk with watering gardens this way, and it's fungal problems such as powdery mildew, which are particularly abundant here in Sydney during our humid summers. So I do try to pick my days to wash the plants (and of course I don't do it all the time). I choose days which will be sunny and the "washing" water will soon disappear once the sun, once again, shows the world who's the boss.

I'm sure it works, I have no solid evidence whatsoever that it does, but that's my little unscientific theory, and I'm sticking with it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Geraniums to the rescue

Gardeners are not alone when it comes to carefully-thought-out plans not quite following the script, but at least when things go wrong for we growers of plants, we can at least plant something else and things can still work out OK. That's what is starting to happen here, and it's good old geraniums to the rescue!

In our case, my brilliant plan was to see our row of four Gardenia magnifica plants rising up 1.5 to 2m (5-6 feet) tall, almost covering our boring off-white steel fence with their glossy green foliage and fragrant white flowers. Nice plan! The trouble is that they are struggling rather badly. The tallest is just 1m tall, and the others are lagging behind. Don't worry, I'm working on it...

Here's the problem, and the solution (well,
the solution under way). Those gardenias'
assignment was to fill the space that is
now occupied by bare white steel fencing.
Hopefully a bit of soil pH measuring and
adjusting, then whammo with the chicken poo
and the Seasol and water should get those
gardenias growing in autumn, but in the meantime....

... Pammy and I agreed that hanging baskets spilling
over with foliage and flowers seemed a nice idea. As we are
a little bit old-fashioned in some ways, ivy geraniums
were our pick to do the job of filling the void colourfully.
These are the sort that like to climb, spill or trail.

Part B of our gap-filling job happened down at ground level, with geraniums to the rescue again. Instead of looking at the scrawny gardenias, visitors say "my, your old-fashioned red geraniums are doing well!" (and of course they say nothing about our boring, scrawny gardenias). And these classic old-style red geraniums are doing well.

These red geraniums are sold as 'Big Red' and they cost too much
for me (almost $20 a pop) to buy the five plants we needed, so I
bought  just two and have taken cuttings from them. Geraniums
strike from cuttings so incredibly easily, and so their babies are
 growing along very well now, some sending up their first little
 flower spikes already. And that, folks, is a saving of 60 bucks
for this penny-pinching semi-retired gardener!

There's something about rich red geraniums which make them
my favourite old-fashioned geranium colour combo. I think it's
that tone of red in combination with that tone of green. Love it!

And if you're wondering about those hanging baskets (for Australian readers) they are 'Tuscan' hanging basket planters by Yates, bought from (you guessed it) Bunnings. For the last two decades I have used wire-framed hanging baskets lined with coir, and while they look nice they do deteriorate fast and their soils do dry out fast and they are rather a lot of hard work. I'm trying plastic for the first time and I suspect they will work fine, will soon disappear from view behind a veil of green ivy geranium leaves and quietly go about their business rather well. They also have a "water well" in the base of the pots for the roots to drink from (once they grow that deep).

As for growing geraniums here in Sydney, the first year is always the best one. They really do prefer a less humid climate (they love Adelaide, with its Mediterranean-style climate), and in Sydney you will often strike problems during prolonged wet or wet and humid periods. That's when air circulation around the plants and good soil drainage are the critical factors in keeping geraniums healthy and happy, apart of course from receiving plenty of sunshine all day long.

PS: and if you want to tell me that these geraniums are actually pelargoniums, and not geraniums, go on, I know somebody reading this posting is dying to!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

You lookin' at me?

Such lovely birds, magpies. I like their song better than any other bird's, so I'm always delighted to see them wandering around our garden. Yesterday, one seemed to be finding plenty to eat amongst the mulch around our baby zucchini plant, when it stopped for a moment, looked up, and saw another magpie doing the same.

Oh no! Fear not, the magpie looked at its grazing partner, then continued on with the more important business of searching for insects in the mulch.

This is the downside of installing a mirror in a small garden ... it does look nice to see the reflections of plants in the mirror, and it does help to make the small garden feel a bit bigger, but at the wrong time of year, it can start fights. 

Our grazing magpie was merely curious, but at other times of year, in the mating season, the sight of a "competitor" on their patch sends some birds into a flurry of wing flaps and hops, head butts and feints and other "go away" territorial displays ... and they'll never win against a mirror. The only outcome is that they might hurt themselves, which is something I definitely don't want.

So, when I notice a bird having a fight with itself, doing its own version of Robert de Niro's classic "You lookin' at me?" scene from Taxi Driver, I do shoo it away. One simple fix to the problem in our case is to open my shed door, which, when it swings open, blocks the mirror.

But lots of home owners with generous expanses of windows facing gardens will know what I am talking about, and have a much bigger problem. At the wrong time of day, at the wrong time of year, those windows become mirrors which can send mating birds into lethal frenzies of competition as they try to see off the "intruder" (by flying straight into the window). Whack! Some will do it repeatedly, such is there competitive instinct, and many birds have died for their cause.

It's such a hard problem to prevent, and as most gardeners love to not only see birds in their gardens but actively try to attract winged visitors with nectar plants, birdbaths, etc, it's just a risk for us to be aware of, and to helpfully 'shoo' a bird away from self-harm when you can, but in the mating season, your garden is "territory" to be fought for, and tragedy is always on the cards.