Friday, December 30, 2016

In a pickle with a glut of cucumbers

It seems like it was only weeks ago that I posted a blog about my newly planted little "Cutecumber" cucumber plants. And that's because it was only four weeks ago! My, how this thing has grown in our summer sunshine, and now it is producing Lebanese type cucumbers at an astonishing rate. Right now, I'm bringing in two cucumbers a day, and though Pammy is a world-class cucumber snacker, she's falling behind and the cucumber glut in our fridge crisper cabinet is growing.

The plant's label said "90-150cm" but I think that's the daily growth rate ...

Mind you, it's a handsome thing right now. A month from now, as February's deadly, oppressive humidity starts to hit, this lovely green foliage will probably be dusted with powdery mildew, despite my best organic efforts to prevent it.

Half the trick with harvesting the cucumbers is actually finding all of them. The plant's growth is so lush, meandering and complex that it's easy to miss fairly large cucumbers. Our lunch guests on Christmas Day managed to spot three cucumbers I hadn't noticed.

With all this excess produce mounting up (even after giving several away) there was only one way to cope: make pickles. And so that's what I did today. I've made two different types of pickles. One is a Sweet Danish Pickle which I've made a few times before and which I really like. The other is my first attempt at dill pickles. It's too early to know whether that batch has worked, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here's the basics of the Danish Sweet Pickles ...

After washing three cucumbers, finely slice them. That white thing in the photo is a Zyliss slicer, which is hellishly nerve-wracking to use because it's so sharp, but if you are very careful and follow the safety guidelines, it makes quick work of three little cucumbers. Each slice is very thin, about 1-2mm.

As you transfer the slices to a bowl, sprinkle over some sea salt flakes. I added the cucumbers in about 3 layers, salting each layer as I went. Leave them to soak for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the pickling liquid, which is 1.5 cups white wine vinegar, half a cup of sugar, 5 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed, and 1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns. To mix this up, just add the sugar to the vinegar in a few batches, stirring with a fork until the sugar dissolves. No heat is necessary, and the whole thing takes about 1 minute. So easy!

Next, rinse the salted cucumber slices under running water to remove the salt, drain in a colander, then gently squeeze dry. Divide the cucumbers into two small, sterilised jars, or pop them into one large sterilised jar.

Next, add the pickling liquid, along with the bay leaves and spices, to each jar (if using two). Seal the lids, pop them into the fridge and they are ready to eat by the evening (presuming you made them in the morning). Talk about easy.

If you think half a cup of sugar is way too much, the original recipe used one whole cup of sugar. I've experimented with 1/3 cup, 1/4 cup and I think 1/2 cup suits my tastebuds.

The original use for these pickles is as a "pickled cucumber salad" (agurk salat) to go with Danish pork and veal meatballs, called Frikadellers. While I still use them for that dish, these pickles are wonderful as part of lunchtime sandwiches, too.

Finally, the big experiment that has yet to end ... my first attempt at classic dill pickles. Now, the first thing I have learnt about this recipe is that there are only about a zillion dill pickle recipes out there (all authentic, of course).

The second thing I've learnt is that there is such a thing as "refrigerator" dill pickles, which means you can make up a little batch in a jar and pop them in the fridge. Wait a few days and they should be ready.

I am definitely not ready for Advanced Industrial Pickling yet — with all those scary jars with exploding sealed lids sitting in big pans of boiling water. So I like this idea of "refrigerator" dill pickles, it's far more peaceful. Here's what I did.

Sterilise the jar in boiling water, and wash three cucumbers. Slice off the ends of each cucumber, then slice lengthways into batons that are about one inch shorter than the jar.

Next, make up the pickling liquid, which is 1.5 cups water mixed with 1.5 cups apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons sea salt flakes, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Add this to a saucepan, heat this until the sugar and salt have dissolved, let it come to a gentle simmer, then turn off the heat and leave it all for half a hour to cool down.

To the bottom of the jar, add 1 peeled clove garlic, a sprig fresh dill and 1 teaspoon pickling spices mix (these are sold here in Oz in packs which contain mustard, peppercorns, allspice and dill seed). Then carefully stuff the jar full of cucumber batons. 

FInally, pour in the cooled pickling liquid, seal the jar, put it in the fridge and wait for three days. They should be OK to eat by then, but how would I know? My "three days" isn't up yet. I'll road test them in the New Year and let you know.

By the way, there is an alternative method for making these same refrigerator pickles, and the main difference is that you pour the very hot, simmering pickling liquid into the packed jar of cucumbers, then you let that cool down completely before refrigerating the jar. I wouldn't have a clue if that works, but I suspect it does because there's half a zillion recipes online which say to do it that way.

In the meantime, I hope 2017 is a very much better year for you than 2016 was, and I look forward to letting you know the exciting conclusion to my pickling experiments early in the New Year. See you then!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Frangipani 'Serendipity'

Replacing a major plant in our garden always leads to a small series of what Pammy and I jokingly refer to as "committee meetings". In this case the vacancy was created by the demise of our Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' which was split into two floppy, despondent, sodden halves during a fierce storm a few months ago.

Since then the committee has met a few times, and eventually we decided a second frangipani would be the perfect choice for the spot, which is very close to our covered pergola, where we do all our summer entertaining. Cool shade and tropical fragrance in summer, lots of leafless light getting through in winter, the perfect size of small tree too, and an easy-care beauty that loves being in Sydney. Win, win, win, win, win!

But what kind of frangipani? What colour? Well, it turned out that Pammy found the perfect replacement by a process of serendipity, and here it is.

This isn't its official name, but I am thinking of this as Frangipani 'Serendipity'. 

Here's how Pammy found it: she opened a gate leading to a local art studio run by a ceramicist, Lisa (where Pam teaches painting), and there it was, in a pot, with a modest price tag on it. It was easily the nicest of a gaggle of about a dozen frangipanis Lisa's daughter had for sale, part of a fund-raising effort for her school. The plant itself was a cutting taken from the same coloured frangipani growing in the garden behind Lisa's art studio. Pammy texted me to say "I've found our frangipani" and later that day it was home at our place.

Here it is in all its shapely glory. With this start, our serendipitous find should grow into a beautifully shaped small tree over the next decade or so. 

Now, 'Serendipity' is one of my favourite words because of the story behind its meaning. The word itself was invented by Horace Walpole in 1754 (says my Oxford Dictionary), in his story "The Three Princes of Serendip". Now, Serendip was the old name of Sri Lanka (in between it was Columbo) and the meaning of serendipity is the "faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident." Walpole was thinking that coming across Serendip was a delightful discovery, and all of my friends who have visited Sri Lanka assure me he was right — it truly is a delightful place, when it's at peace with itself.

A much less happy tale is the demise of our poor old grevillea. The storm split it in two at the base, and it slowly died off over the next few months. It had been the frame for wearing our ever-growing tresses of Spanish moss, and eventually, a few years from now, we hope our new frangipani will do the same job. Pictured here is the sad sight today, with the bare branches held up by props. 

So, in the meantime, my first task is to redistribute all the Spanish moss evenly amongst our other backyard trees: a lime, a lemon, an olive and our other frangipani. Then it'll be a chore to dig out the grevillea, and finally a pleasure to plant out Frangipani 'Serendipity'.

Pammy loves our existing frangipani tree, which also has a similar history to our new one, in that the cutting comes from a friend, Krissy's, garden. Krissy is a former workmate of mine, and is the sister of another workmate and Pam's music-loving pal, Zora, so it's a tree with a close, personal connection that is important to us both. Our new frangipani comes from Lisa's studio where Pam has spent many many hours teaching art courses. So both our frangipanis have a special, personal history (which is why growing and sharing plants from cuttings is a beautiful way to enjoy a garden full of living memories). 

Of course Zora & Krissy's frangipani is an el-classico yellow and white one, while Lisa's frangipani has a blush of pink, as well as yellow and white ... 

... and both of them will look lovely on a rainy morning ...

... and both will smell tropically divine on a sunny day.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A splash of red

Every bunch of enthusiasts in every field includes quite a few snobs, and gardening is no exception. Snobs, God bless their misguided souls, want to feel that they're a bit better than other people, and so they select something from their favourite pastime to be snobby about. There are wine snobs, music snobs, coffee snobs ... the list is truly endless, but somewhere in that mix you'll find plant snobs, too. 

And the wonderful plant pictured below is one that the gardening snobs will turn up their already upturned noses at, it's a good old geranium (botanically, a Pelargonium), and this very special one goes by the cultivar name of 'Big Red'. It's a miracle worker in my garden.

This is a photo from a few weeks ago. It's almost always like this, but every now and then it takes a breather (and I get in there and cut off all the faded flowers), the red blooms disappear for a couple of weeks, then it's back to full bloom again in no time. It's in flower for most of the year.

Not all geraniums are this wonderful. I have had plenty of them die off in Sydney's humidity over the years, but this Big Red champion just spreads and spreads and flowers and flowers. And it does all this in the one bed in my garden that has never been truly trouble-free or productive. No wonder I am in love with this plant.

Striking cuttings from it is an simple as whipping out the secateurs and whacking the trimmed cuttings into the soil, a pot or a hanging basket. Friends and relatives visiting our place invariably comment on Big Red and tootle home with a handful of cuttings at the end of their visit. Sure enough, six months later they're telling me how incredibly well their Big Red cuttings are going.

And that's what the snobs hate about this gloriously healthy, vigorous plant: it is far too easy to grow. They seem to feel that gardening should be difficult, that it's no achievement to cultivate an easy grower like this. (And I have garden snob friends who feel the same way about murrayas in Sydney ... they're also far too easy to grow, but that's another topic altogether).

So, all I can say to Sydney gardeners in particular, but I suspect many Australian gardeners in general is this: if you have a spot in your garden where nothing has really gone well, try this Big Red person and I sincerely do hope that it might make you happier. Failing that, at least it might make your garden look a whole lot more colourful, for very little effort.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Volunteering for duty

This is the dream scenario for vegie gardeners: crops that plant themselves. Pictured below is my first-ever self-seeded lettuce baby, doing well this morning. 

And it's not on its own, either. There are four more almost identical siblings popping up in what is now my shallot patch, but I am sure those skinny people don't mind interlopers.

I do like the term for these self-planting vegies: "Volunteers". Prior to this I've had volunteer potatoes aplenty, tomatoes and strawberries too, but never any salad greens.

Now, how this all came about is due to my "lettuce tower" which I blogged about in October. I like letting some vegies live out a full life cycle, and it seems my purple lettuce tower not only flowered, but it also set seed which has now germinated. Woo hoo!

The cheapness of my thrills is appalling sometimes ...

But those yellow lettuce flowers did look nice against that purple backdrop.

Onto the next minor thrill ...

No, this is not a self-seeded story, this is just a story about a new plant developing crops very early in its life. Yes, another thrill, I'm afraid.

The problem for us with cucumbers is that the plants take up too much space, so I am always on the lookout for smaller growing versions. I spotted this "CuteCumber" at Bunnings a few weeks ago, and the "cute mini size" label had me sold the moment I saw it.

So I've set up a teepee over the seedling and it is powering along, a bit too much in fact for my liking. The label says its size is "90-150cm" and so I am really hoping for 90 but have a very nervous 150 feeling deep in my bones. Pam absolutely loves cucumbers, and so I am hoping to be able to provide some of this summer's supply for her.

Finally, another small beginning that is working out well. A while back I realised that when I didn't have any fresh chillies at home, I mostly bought the red, 10cm (4 inch) long chillies for cooking. And so a while back I opened up one of my supermarket 10cm chillies, saved eight seeds, sowed them in a punnet, and all eight seeds came up and turned into healthy plants. Chillies are like that. They really like life.

While all the familiar uses of chillies (chopped and tossed into everything from sambals to curries and stir-fries) are not worth mentioning yet again, one other way that I like to use those bigger, more gently heated chillies is in cooking tomato-based pasta sauces. For "a touch of chilli" I just toss one whole, uncut, unopened chilli into the sauce and let it slowly infuse a very gentle heat into the sauce, whether it's a vego tomato sauce or a meat-rich tomato sauce. Just before serving, lift out the soggy cooked chilli and discard. Lovely effect it gives to a tomato sauce, without making it "hot". 

Friday, November 25, 2016

The early morning gardener

Of course it is impolite to eavesdrop on others' conversations, and I'm far too well brought up in the old-fashioned way to do it intentionally, but boy do I love a good accidental eavesdrop when you have no option but to listen to two people talking, close-by. 

In situations such as when you are seated behind people chatting loudly on the bus, or when the people at the table next to you in the cafe are doing the same, you do run the risk of being bored to tears by their inane chatter if they're talking about last night's reality TV show eliminations, but every now and then you strike a little bit of overheard "gold". 

Now, it wasn't anything gossipy or earth-shattering that I listened to, but it was funny to hear two people discussing "routines" as if they were discussing a terrible disease. In fact the whole conversation was hilariously devoted to these two people trying to outdo each other in how committed they were to having no routines whatsoever ... apart from their regular get-togethers at the cafe, of course.

In my advanced years I have come to a somewhat different conclusion about routines. At their worst, yes, strict routines can be debilitating in the same manner as a terrible disease, but at their best enjoyable routines can be as pleasurable as a nice cup of tea when you're thirsty.

And so, after no less than four paragraphs by way of introduction, I am very happy to tell you that I love my little early morning gardening routines. They're nothing special, it's mostly just watering the garden, actually, but there's an enormous amount of "noticing things" that goes on in its own infinite variety that makes this routine so special. On with the slide show of the pleasures of early morning gardening, plus a few things I noticed this morning.

So many plants and fruits look nicer with water droplets on them, and our little crop of baby figs shows that off very nicely.  


As far as mint is concerned, there's no such thing as too much water, but this healthy crop is mostly a case of job satisfaction for the savage pruning it performed on its straggly former self about a month ago. To stay looking lush and healthy, mint needs to be cut back down to pot-rim level several times a year.

One of my favourite vegies, this is "perpetual spinach". Yesterday morning I knew I was going to need some baby spinach leaves for a salad, so I picked the leaves early in the day, while they were still full of moisture. If I picked the leaves in the hot afternoon, the leaves would have far less moisture. Unlike ordinary spinach, this variety lasts much longer in the ground. It's "cut-and-come-again" spinach, and the only mistake you can make with it is to not harvest it often. Fortunately we use spinach a lot in cooking and in salads. These bigger leaves will be very nice as a cooked accompaniment to some salmon on the weekend. 

All this photo is about is that it's nice to check on the progress of new plants early in the morning and see that they're happy. These are New Guinea impatiens.

The gentle morning glow shows some plants in their "best light". A classic example is our potted NSW Christmas Bush, whose delicate "flower" colour is at its loveliest in the softer morning light. In the harsh light of the afternoon, it's a far less appealing, drowned out by the glare.

Impatiently waiting for the first fragrant frangipani of the season is one of my current pleasures of the morning. I love how frangipanis send up flower stalks and fresh new leaves in November. There's something "alien" about them.

Serves me right! I'm always telling people here at this blog that coriander doesn't like the heat, and will go from leafy to seedy in no time, once the weather warms up. And so what did I do? I planted some coriander sprouts in September, then watched all my predictions come true after a bout of very warm October weather. Even though I've lost my leafy herb, I have now settled on harvesting all the seed in a few weeks' time and drying it, saving it to sow over autumn and winter next year.

The early morning is a great time for crime-fighting too. Here's a bronze orange bug mugging an innocent baby lemon. Not any more it isn't.

Finally, the early morning is also the time when I get most of my bigger gardening jobs done. Yesterday I trimmed a hedge before the heat grew too oppressive. Tomorrow I am pulling down all six hanging baskets and renovating them in the morning. Weeds have colonised a few baskets where geraniums are meant to be the only occupants, and so after renovations are complete I am hoping for a much better flower show from them.

And so, if you have somehow managed to make it all the way to the bottom of this blog posting, take it from me that I love some of life's routines, especially my morning expeditions out into the garden. It's practical, in that I can get some little jobs done while the temperatures are still cool. I do wilt in the heat, I'm afraid, and so my mornings are when I get most of my gardening jobs done these days. 

It's a happy routine I am willing to advocate — if your mornings aren't taken up with getting the kids off to school, or yourself off to work. However if you are in a position to be in the garden for at least half an hour most mornings, give it a try, even if it means getting up out of bed half an hour earlier than usual.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

This Lime Tree Bower my Prison

What a dramatic title for a simple little gardening blog posting. It's actually the name of a  poem written in 1797 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favourite poets (he of the 'Rime of The Ancient Mariner' and 'Kubla Khan' fame).

What brought me to think of poor old Sam, after all these years, is the sad, simple fact that I, too, am a bit of prisoner at the moment (and I have a lime tree too in my prison, admittedly a Tahitian lime, while Sam's northern English lime is a linden tree, but we're soul bothers across the centuries and continents all the same). 

Back in 1797 Samuel was a temporary invalid. Apparently, his wife had accidentally spilt a saucepan full of hot milk onto his foot (must have hurt like hell!) and so he was not able to join his other literary friends (several in the party, but notably William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb) on a lovely long walk through the Lakes District of England. Here's a link to the poem's text, if you're a poetry person. 

My comparison to the spilt-milk story is more bleary eyed, and at times mildly painful, but  it's nothing like a scalded foot. I have been afflicted with conjunctivitis, that bacterial infection of the eyes which immediately made me look like an extra from a zombie movie. For me that means not much computer, nor books, nor magazines, nor reading. The only thing left for me to do was complete all those gardening jobs which didn't require great eyesight but did need a gardener to get the job done. Time for a photo, a panorama no less, here in November 2016.

Now, this might look to you like a fairly well organised Sydney garden in early spring mode, with lots of baby vegies barely making an impression yet and the rest enjoying the weather. 

I can tell you right now that this is a terrible scene of neglect, lethargy, procrastination and dithering. A disgrace! But not any more it isn't. "Conjunctivitis Boy" to the rescue. All our tame zombie can do right now is prune, trim, repot, fertilise and water. And that's what I've been doing. The garden is in much better nick at the end of this week than it was when my eyesight was good last weekend.

However, at the end of each day, I have soothed myself with a nice evening glass of wine and a good sit down outdoors to contemplate "this lime tree bower my prison". What a nice way to end each day!

Now, poor old Sam Coleridge had a sore foot, I had sore eyes, but both of us were grounded, imprisoned.

My reading of his poem, based on my humble university BA course in Romantic Poetry which I did in 1973, is vastly different from the contemporary stuff I looked up online to refresh my 40-year-old memory. Today's reading of his poem seems mostly psychiatric, rather than poetic, and I think they miss the point entirely ...

In my understanding of this poem, Sam at first imagined the glories of nature in the vast wide world through which his friends were wandering without him, but he soon came to realise that in his own, imprisoned microcosm of world, this lime tree bower which was his temporary mini universe, all the glories of nature were around him. All he had to do was look.

And so it is with me. Though our garden is small, if you bother to look really closely, you can see enough of nature to keep you fascinated and amazed, forever. This is a theme I do return to again and again here at Garden Amateur, but right now I feel it so very strongly. I really could spend all of my life here and never cease to be fascinated.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Getting misty over Spanish moss

Here's a good example of how hard it is to see the tiny flowers of our Spanish moss. Every year, around early November, our Spanish moss bursts into bloom. We know that, and so at this time of year I go looking for them. But the first time I looked over our Spanish moss this year, I didn't see any. I wasn't looking hard enough.

It turns out that this season's flowering hasn't been a great one, but I was wrong — the tiny flowers were there, but they weren't as numerous, that's all.

Standing back a few feet from the plant, they are so hard to spot. You need to look for little flecks of green. The flowers themselves are about a quarter of an inch (4-6mm) long and wide, perfectly formed, green petalled with a maroon base, and a very very tiny little fleck of yellow pollen in the centre, just like all the big flowers in our garden.

Now, I do have a theory about why the Spanish moss's flowering is so meagre this year, and I think it's because of disturbance. For the last few years, we've draped our Spanish moss all over our Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' (and yes, it does look a bit spooky). 

Sadly, this year the Grevillea started to die off, due to a fungal rot within its trunk and branches. And in a big storm, big parts of it fell over. 

So, instead of removing the grevillea, we have trimmed off all the dead and dying bits, propped it up with metal stakes and a bit of strategic binding here and there, and it's now a bare-branched framework for our Spanish moss. 

It won't last forever. It might not even last a year or more, but Pammy and I love our Spanish moss and so we're happy with this temporary fix, and long may it last! Of course it's the first thing friends comment on when they step out into our backyard.

This year, instead of enjoying yet another blissful 12 months draped over the same, familiar branches, every last part of the Spanish moss has been disturbed and rearranged. And that's my theory to explain why its flowering has been so modest.  

Our clumps of the stuff thrive here, and there is one useful tip I have for anyone wondering how to grow it. Water it often. Yes, water it often with a fine mist.

Spanish moss thrives in humid zones of the warm, wet parts of southern USA, Central America and South America, and so I try to replicate those steamy conditions with regular misty sprays of water. I have one of those hose attachments which have a dial, so you can easily change from a shower, to a mist, to a jet of water, and so on. And our Spanish moss loves its misty showers.

A friend the other day said "we've always called that an air plant" and they're right, but that leads people to think they don't need to do anything whatsoever to these plants. In a sense they're right, as Spanish moss will soldier on fairly well in a mild, well-rained-on climate like Sydney, but with regular misting the stuff multiplies like crazy.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bang on schedule

Last year I posted some photos of our "false cardamom" (Alpinia nutans or Alpinia calcarata) which bloomed for the first time after 20 or so uneventful years in our garden.

At the time it occurred to me that this might be a once-in-every-20-year bloomer, but no, it's not. It's in flower again, and I think it's looking better this year, too.

The wonderful red-speckled golden mouths are much more colourful and prominent this year, while the white surrounds are almost pearlescent before they fade to a coppery brown. 

And there are more flower stalks this year, as well. 

It remains a mystery to me why this tropical plant has waited so many years to bloom for the first time, and is now blooming away right on schedule (almost to the day) like it has been doing it for years. It's on my list of questions to ask of the Great Gardener in the Sky, should I ever make it up there at the end of my brief term down here on Mother Earth.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Posting too soon

I just love stepping outside into our garden in the mornings. There's always something slightly different to see that wasn't there the day before. And this morning it was the sight of the big pot of Louisiana iris which I had posted about only last Saturday. 

I had posted too soon! This morning the big pot is at its peak. I've never seen so many big blue beauties open at the same time. So, without further ado, a few extra photos of the big pot on its very best day of the year.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

October surprises

Some mornings, I know exactly how daisies feel. It's not enough for the sun's early appearance to turn night into day. What daisies need is to feel the sun's warm, direct rays beating down on their flowers, and then (and only then) will they open up and do their thing. 

Looking like a cluster of mini suns, the "surprise" part of this purple-leafed, yellow-flowered daisy bush is that it's a lettuce plant enjoying its floral fling before signing off on a life well lived, however briefly.

This handsome purple tower was once a low-growing, purple patch of "pick-and-come-again" loose-leaf lettuce, looking much like its green lettuce siblings growing at its feet. Then, two weeks ago, it made its break for adulthood and rose daily, inches at a time. I watered it and gave it a feed to encourage it, and in the last few days it has repaid the favour with its own flower show. Bravo!

In a recent posting on bees I showed you a photo of this shallot flower, but it's so delightful I want to show it again. And it's not alone in this world, either. While I have another mini patch of shallots growing well in another bed, I've very happily watched these shallots doing their flowery thing for the last few weeks. There used to be more of them in fact, but in the last few days both Pammy and I have harvested some from this patch for dinner, and they're still perfectly fine to cook with, but probably getting a bit too strong-flavoured for salads anymore. 

My final little October surprise is this perfectly predictable scene of our common sage bush in bloom. The "surprise" factor is simply that it is flowering so well this year. It was looking utterly rough, scrawny and bedraggled in the middle of winter, so I adopted the simple policy of "cut off all the ugly bits" (and there were a lot of them, too). It seems to have worked. All the healthy wood that was left has burst out in new growth and, in the last few days, created this explosion of mauve good health.

Sage has wonderfully complex flowers, too. With their mouths agape as if singing a long, high note to finish a song, sage flowers remind me of some orchids. 

I have no problems imagining that on other planets, alien life could easily be comprised of flowering plants that talk.