Friday, November 27, 2015

Restaurant for flying visitors

Recently, last week in fact, I shared an experience with just 20 million other people on the planet that day. It was my birthday. (Do the maths ... 7.3 billion on Earth, 365 days a year, average of 20 million people have a birthday each day. Don't worry, you're still special!) 

My Pammy is an all-time champion gift buyer, present wrapper, card sender and general rememberer of everyone's birthday, and so this year she found this nice garden gnome bird feeder for me, along with some other lovely thoughtful gifts. All I had to do was add some seed.

It just so happens that I always have a little bag of birdseed on hand, and my best customers for free bird seed are a two very gentle turtle-doves who have just successfully raised a chick over the recent late winter/early spring period. Though I try not to make them dependent on me for seed, whenever the mood takes me to put some out, they're there in a flash.

So it didn't take long for them to discover their new bird feeding guy. (In case you're wondering who the white-streaked green gnome is, he's a plastic money-box gnome who I keep under shelter, just beside my shed door. He's filled with sand so he doesn't blow over, and he does door-stop duty when needed.) The doves patiently take turn to feed. Soon after I took this photo, the one feeding stopped, hopped off, and the other hopped up for some seed.

In case you're wondering "are turtle-doves native to Australia?" my bird reference book says "no". They are native to South-East Asia and southern China, and were introduced to Australia from the 1860s onwards (like a great many Australian residents, come to think of it).

They're the gentlest, most docile birds I know. These two have been an item for a few years now, and I hope that I'm not spoiling them with the occasional extra feeds. They do look a bit porky, though, don't they?

So "thank you" Pammy for the lovely gnome bird-feeder, it's a classy addition to our gnome-friendly, bird-friendly garden.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thirsty work

We all know that birds love a drink and a flap in a birdbath on a scorching hot day such as today, but some of our other garden workers need a drink, too. 

I spotted a group of our native paper wasps carefully clustering around the water-filled cup of a bromeliad. As I'd liberally watered the whole garden this morning due to the forecast of 38°C (100°F), which has been exceeded already, the bromeliad had little puddles of water here, there and everywhere, and every tier of its central cluster of leaves had a puddle attended by a thirsty wasp.

This photo is a slight fudge, as I remembered that I took it on another scorching hot day a few years ago. In our largest birdbath I always place a gently sloping, low rock into the water, so bees and wasps (and tiny birds) can carefully move down the slope and slurp up a drink. If the rock is too steep-sided they run the risk of falling in and drowning.

As for the human workers, Pammy and I are both inside the house, sipping some tea and mostly staying inside. Everyone needs a refreshing drink on a scorching hot day like today!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

One hedge bites the dust

Here's a handy tip. If you're planning on sneaking up to our front door, don't do it at night. You could get trapped in the spider webs which run from hedge to hedge across our front path. Fortunately, this isn't much of a real problem, as we know who is likely to visit our house most of the time, and so it's my job to make sure all the spider webs are down before our guests arrive. When it's just Pammy and me returning home from a night out, we have some sticks sitting on a ledge by our front gate, making it easy enough to swoosh away the webs (much to the spiders' annoyance, I am sure).

However, we've decided that not only is this all too much bother, the hedges themselves aren't what they used to be. Here's a photo of them in their prime a few years back.

They don't look green and lush like this anymore. Tiny native insects called "psyllids" have ruined our hedges (of the lilly pilly called 'Tiny Trev'). You can't see the psyllids, but you can see the damage they cause, which is lots of tiny pimples on all the leaves

This is a photo of the psyllid damage to the lilly pilly's lovely, bright red new growth, which is what they really attack with vigour. Over the years the psyllids have been winning the battle, the hedges are covered with ugly, pimply foliage, and so the worst of the hedges is coming out, and the others will come out soon, as well.

The chemical treatment that was recommended for psyllids is Confidor, but that is not only a non-organic solution to the problem, it's a nasty one I won't use. Recent research seems to show that Confidor might also be very damaging to other insect populations, especially bees. And so, with no organic controls of psyllids available, the only solution is to either (a) replant with a psyllid-resistant lilly pilly species (which are available) or (b) forget the hedges altogether. I'm going for option "b".

Given that we're basically being driven mad by the relentless spider webs across the path, it was an easy decision to remove the hedges and replace them with some lower-growing and also lower maintenance plants. So here's what we did...

Step one is to almost break your back removing 10-year-old lilly pillies with monster root systems. This only takes two hours and the only thing you have to show for your efforts is this photo of brown nothingness. The good news is that the soil there is weed-free, has plenty of worms and is still light and lovely.

Step Two is to figure out what to grow there that is low-maintenance, low-growing, indestructible and blessed with redeeming features such as year-round foliage and a burst of flowers at some stage of the year. So it was off to the garden centre to buy some plants plus three bags of potting mix to top up the soil.

If you were hoping that I'd choose something rare, or unusual, or challenging to grow, you will be bitterly disappointed to see this plant label. Star jasmine. There are only 5 million star jasmines thriving in Sydney at the moment, so I am hoping this will be number 5,000,001. This plant loves Sydney in much the same way that Murraya loves Sydney, and vice versa. Glossy green foliage year-round, scented spring flowers. It's often grown up posts and fences, but it's also a good groundcover. Local councils love to plant it inside concrete traffic islands, and it thrives there. It will grow in sun, semi-shade or shade, but flowers best in full sun. My job will be to cut it back a couple of times a year, but not as often as I've had to cut back the lilly pilly hedges. 

Down the other end of this narrow pathside bed, while we wait for the star jasmine to make its way down there, I've planted a punnet of vincas, which hopefully will thrive and flower prettily for three or so months, after which I can ruthlessly pull them out (with a gentle word of thanks to them tossed in for good measure).

And so, traaa daaa. Ten minutes' work and that part of the job is done. All I need to do it water them in, but before I go, here's a word or three about a product I have been using for a couple of years and rarely mention. It's the seaweed solution, eco-seaweed.

I have been using this same container of eco-seaweed since 2013, and there's still lots left. I know it goes back to 2013, as it was a freebie given to everyone who attended some kind of gardening PR day (can't remember where or when, sorry) when I still had a job at Burke's Backyard. eco-seaweed is a certified-organic, dried seaweed product which you mix up at the rate of one teaspoon per 9L watering can. No wonder I am only halfway through the pack!

Here's what it looks like close up. Ummm ... dried black seaweed. The label on the pack says one jar makes up to 800 litres of solution, and I don't doubt that's true.

Now, most gardeners are very familiar with the product called "Seasol", but they often misunderstand Seasol, and I don't think any amount of repeated explanations is ever going to get through to them that Seasol isn't a fertiliser, it's a root growth promoter and general plant tonic. 

Well, that's the identical problem with eco-seaweed. The companies marketing Seasol and eco-seaweed want you to believe that they are uniquely different products, but as far as I am concerned they're pretty much the same thing (except that the Seasol is sold as a liquid, and the eco-seaweed is a dried concentrate). 

I didn't bother buying any more Seasol after my bottle of it ran out in 2013. I just switched over to the freebie eco-seaweed and two years later I am still using the same pack. AND I have a second freebie pack of eco-seaweed here (the one that Pam brought home in her freebie gift bag), and so I think we might just have enough eco-seaweed to see us through to 2020 at least. 

The least I could do for the company who has given us almost a lifetime supply of excellent quality plant tonic is this free plug! Besides, I like it and it works just fine.

They also have several other modern, sophisticated, eco-friendly, organic-certified products on the market (such as the freebie eco-fungicide that was also in their gift bag – thanks!) so do check them out at their website.

Finally, a thrilling action shot of me watering in the plants. This is one of the best uses for these seaweed solutions: watering in newly planted plants. I'll give them a follow-up watering with more seaweed solution a few weeks from now, and they should be doing nicely by then. Fingers crossed!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Good crops, bad crops

Of course everyone who has ever watched a detective show on TV knows about "good cop bad cop", where one detective is nasty to the suspect (ie, the bad cop) while the other one (the good cop) offers the "perp" a drink and a kind word, in the hope that the suspect spills the beans to the nice detective before the bad one gets seriously upset and starts turning off the tape recorder and throwing chairs around the interview room.

What's this got to do with growing vegetables, you ask? Well, I suspect my vegetables are trying to work me over. My potatoes are my bad cop, my spinach is the nice guy. I think they want me to grow fewer potatoes and more spinach, but my mind doesn't work that way. I like eating both of them, so I am going to continue growing both of them, despite my dud crop of spuds trying to play the bad crop.

What do I mean by "dud crop of spuds?" Well, this is all of them. Not even one colander full. I was rather hoping for a few kilograms, and all I ended up with is far too many one-inch tiddler mini spuds and only a dozen or so "proper-sized" Kind Edward potatoes. Here's what happened ...

Back in mid-October, the potato plants started to do their usual thing of looking ugly. That's OK, potato crops do that. The foliage is meant to slowly die off while, underground, countless dozens of little spudettes turn into enormous great big spuds.

A month later, by mid-November, the plants looked like they'd done their dash, and so I harvested the lot ...

... and couldn't even fill one lousy colander. It's not as if this is my first go at growing spuds. I've done it a few times before, sometimes growing them in the ground and other times in bags. And I grew them this time using the same methods as before. Of course I could turn around and blame my seed potato supplier, but that would be churlish (however, I have resolved not to order from that same supplier next year, just as a precaution). Never fear though, this potato-loving boy will be back next season, hoping for a better result.

Meanwhile, in the very same patch of ground, and right next door to the dud spuds, my long-lasting crop of perpetual spinach had reached peak abundance, so I harvested the lot before our forecast scorching hot 41°C Friday hits us.

Ever the experimenter, several months ago I spotted a red-stemmed variety of perpetual spinach in amongst the more regular green types at the local nursery, so I have given that a try. Perpetual spinach isn't English spinach, and it isn't silver beet, and it isn't ruby chard. It's a close relative of all these, but it has the lovely quality of simply lasting a long time in the ground.

When the leaves are young and small we pick them as colourful little extras in a leafy green salad. Later on, once the number of leaves gets ahead of us and they mature into bigger leaves, we've been picking several at a time for cooking as a spinach side dish. (My favourite is to simply stir-fry it, along with currants (or sultanas) and pine nuts.)

The flavour is closer to English spinach than the more pungent silver beet/chard, but the main benefit of this is the way it lasts and lasts through all the winter months and spring. Once summer's heat comes along it's a goner, bolting to seed, but I've given up growing short-lived English spinach and rely instead on this. I'm not sure of its botanical name, but it's sold in nurseries around here as perpetual spinach, so give it a try once the worst of summer has passed.

And so, even if my vegie patch wants me to grow more spinach, I'm not taking the bait. Next year I will spud-up again, and there'll be trouble if there ain't a bumper crop!


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A little discovery

The simple act of finding something delightful is one that I never tire of, and I know Pammy feels the same way. We're often saying to each other "hey, come and have a look at this" when one of us discovers something worth sharing out in the garden.

Other times, instead of marching in triumphantly bearing the latest "news", I like to take the other tack and let Pammy share in the secret delight of discovering the same thing I had just discovered, but all by herself. 

This time, while she was busy elsewhere in the house, I was out in the garden and spotted the first Tillandsia (Spanish moss) flower of the season. And so I snipped off a bit of the plant with its flower and just left it on the desk in her studio, for her to "discover" when she wandered into that room. Here is the little cutie.

The Spanish moss flowers around this time of year, and so the
discovery of this year's flowers was not a major surprise.
It was more a matter of relief that they had finally appeared,
as they usually flower in mid to late October, and so early
November is getting a little bit late for them.
The first time we discovered these tiny flowers was a thrill,
and we did it by accident. Several years ago I just happened to
take some photos of the plant and, only when I opened the
photos on my computer screen, did I notice little green flecks.
So I went outside, got very very very close to the plant and called
out "Hey Pammy, come and look at this!"

Last year I used a toothpick to give you some idea of the small
size of a Spanish moss flower. This year, as I was in Pam's
studio, I grabbed a pencil for the same scale effect.
Out in the garden, stand back five feet and you probably won't
see a thing, apart from a tangle of lightly hairy silver "beard".

And here's the Spanish moss itself this cool, soggy spring afternoon. It's draped from the branches of our grevillea, which itself has grown a bit scrappy and bare-branched at its lower levels over the years. Without the Spanish moss the grevillea would look pretty ordinary, but it is the perfect framework from which to drape the long shawls of whispy grey beard, and between the two of them they're a lovely team of plants. 

The Spanish moss itself is thriving here. I always give it a light spray whenever I water the garden, to give the Spanish moss the feeling that it's in Louisiana (or Georgia, or Mississippi, or Florida ...) where it's always a bit steamy. Come to think of it, Sydney is pretty steamy in summer, too, but the extra watering I've given it in the last two years has really seen it grow better than ever.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A cardamom-flavoured surprise

When a surprise comes in the form of flowers, it's always a welcome one, and this week we have been watching a surprise floral show from a plant which has been in our garden almost as long as we have — that's 24 years — and has not flowered before.

Here it is, photographed this morning, our dwarf cardamom is in bloom. As far as my Googling tells me, this is known as Alpinia nutans, but I have also seen it listed as Alpinia calcarata. Either way it's an ornamental ginger with foliage strongly scented of cardamom. 

In fact, that's why I bought it in the first place. It came in a little pot and the label said "cardamom". Naively, I believed it was real cardamom for many years. The fact that it didn't set pods didn't bother me. I just thought I was too far south of the tropics for it to set pods. But no, the real answer, which I learned a few years ago, is that this plant is sometimes also called "false cardamom" (as well as dwarf cardamom). And so it will never ever set seed pods, because it's the wrong plant.

A week or two ago we got quite a surprise when we noticed that it was in flower towards the back of the clump, and that in a much handier position for photography, a new flower was rising vertically from one fan of tropical foliage. 

I love the way flowers form buds and slowly open, and our dwarf cardamom took about a week to go from this peek through the curtains to being fully open.

Yesterday morning it was almost there ...

And this morning, after some light overnight rain, it's a bit of a mess — not a textbook bloom by any means — but it's open and putting on a show.

Further back in the clump, up against the fence, there are a few other blooms, such as this easily visible one and the barely visible pointed spire of another new bloom just to the right.

It's a delightful mystery as to why this plant has decided to burst into multiple blooms now, after so many years of merely seeming to be a foliage plant. I can't think of anything I've done to make it flower, as I never fertilise the clump of foliage, nor do I ever water it. The only maintenance I perform is to cut it back, as it loves to spread, and its leaves often become brown, shredded at the edges and generally very scrappy looking. The new, young foliage is far more tropically lush and lovely to look at. But as for what made it decide to flower now, after so many years, I haven't a clue.

You can use the cardamom-flavoured leaves of this  dwarf cardamom plant in cooking. An Indian-Australian friend of ours has occasionally taken several leaves from it. She makes up milk-based sweets, which are then wrapped in the cardamom-flavoured leaves and steamed, to produce lovely dessert treats spiced gently with that cardamom scent.