Saturday, November 25, 2017

The sweet spot

Stepping out into the garden this fine late November morning, I was struck by what a sweet spot the garden is in at the moment. Everything is growing well, all the vegie crops are already being picked and producing more every day, and all the woes of a Sydney summer seem like they're an eternity away. Late spring is just about the perfect time of year to be a gardener in this part of the world.

As is my custom, here's an iPhone "Panorama" shot taken 10 minutes ago of all the happy campers in their park.

I'm often struck by how different the human eye is from a camera. From inside our house, looking out, this big yellow star of a zucchini flower is what catches your eye. It said to me "if you don't come out with your camera and take a photo of me, you're missing out". And yet in the panorama above you can barely notice it.

This is the first year I have grown Lebanese zucchini, and they're different from the more conventional 'Blackjack' zucchinis which I tend to grow most years. For one thing, as you can see here, the plants are very susceptible to powdery mildew, but this doesn't affect the crops. In fact, this light dusting of mildew almost looks nice. I'm sure it'll end up being much worse, and I'll pull the plants out prematurely in midsummer, but right now, in this late spring "sweet spot" I can live with spotty leaves.

Zucchini flowers don't last long, but they are fun, and besides, you can always fill them up with ricotta cheese and herbs, coat them in tempura batter and do some fancy dining with them.

The reason I'm growing these pale green Lebanese zucchini is mostly just to try something different, but also because I think these smaller zucchinis have a better flavour than the bigger, dark green ones.

"Lebanese" this, "Lebanese" that: it's an accidental theme this year, and here's my Lebanese eggplant looking young and healthy. Lots of flowers but no fruit yet. They'll appear in summer.

But wait, there's more! Lebanese cucumbers, too, climbing up my frail, spindly teepee of skinny bamboo. These things don't merely "crop", they "glut". We've already harvested several and have given a few away, but fortunately Pammy loves snacking on little bits of chopped up cucumber, so she's my main customer. 

It's taken a while to turn a dozen or so tiny little mixed lettuce seeds into this delicious salad starter pack, but the idea of having a nice mixture of salad greens in a pot that's within a few steps of the kitchen is working out nicely.

I haven't grown silver beet in years, but by chance I ended up with half a punnet of seedlings and in just a few weeks here they are, very big ready to go. I love cooking Indian food, and so a lot of these leaves will go into things such as a lamb or chicken saag, or a vego palak paneer.

I suspect this whole crop won't be here in two weeks' time, but right now they are looking splendid.

Call it a portent of summer pests to come, but here's the only problem popping up during this gardening sweet spot. I suspect it's slugs, because I can't find any snails nearby, but someone is munching on my pot of basil and they're having a delicious old time of it, too.

I've moved the pot to another spot and I'm on the lookout for culprits. So far no luck, and more leaves eaten last night. 

Maybe it's caterpillars? In that case, in my current sweet mood of spring gardening contentment, I am adopting the benign policy of feeding our garden's future butterflies some tender young Genovese basil, and I hope they appreciate its flavour.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The hydrangea blues

I thought as much ... the "blue" hydrangeas I planted recently are just completely normal hydrangeas which turn pink in alkaline soils, or turn blue in acid soils. Mine are a lilac colour, which isn't what I want, and so here's the story of giving my lilac hydrangeas a case of the hydrangea blues. It isn't rocket science, but it is science.

See what I mean? Those large flower petals are the originals. They're not a deep enough colour to be truly purple, they're a bit further along the colour wheel towards the pink end of the spectrum. And so that means my soil pH in this spot is probably somewhere about 5.5 to 6. The next lot of baby buds coming through are looking a lot bluer, though.

Normally, my garden soil is more down the acid end of the spectrum, somewhere about pH 5, and that should produce nice blue hydrangeas. However, the soil in this part of the garden is about 50 per cent homemade compost, and I guess that's why its pH is a bit higher (my guess is something closer to pH 6). 

None of this is a problem, of course. In fact it's just another excuse for some good gardening fun. After much Googling and reading, I realised there are two ways you can go about turning your hydrangeas blue.

Option A is to change the soil pH itself on a semi-permanent basis, using either sulphur powder or liquid sulphur. (And it is also spelled "sulfur" on some product labels, which apparently is how the scientific community has agreed it should be spelled). This is slower acting than option B, but is a more long-lasting, possibly permanent, solution as it changes your soil's pH. It's often used by gardeners growing acid-loving plants such as azaleas, camellias and blueberries.

Option B is to apply a "hydrangea blueing" mixture (liquid or powder) which is made from aluminium sulphate. This is faster acting, but it needs to be reapplied every month or so to keep the hydrangeas nice and blue. I didn't like the sound of that, so I was "yeah, nah" to this method.

This is what our local Mitre 10 store had in stock, so I bought it and applied it to the soil around each plant, then watered it in. The pack comes with a spoon and a guide to how much to use. I've taken a cautious approach and applied half a dose to each plant, and I am sure it is already affecting the flower colour a bit. If it's not that effective, I'll add a bit more later on.

This is the alternative "Option B" product, the aluminium sulfate "blueing" mixture. I didn't buy this and don't intend to, but lots of people prefer a quick fix to a slow fix, and so if you want to turn your pink hydrangeas blue within a few weeks, get some aluminium sulfate.

Finally, in case you're wondering, you can't change the colour of white hydrangeas. In the same soil that's turning my blue hydrangeas into a lilac haze, Pammy's white hydrangeas are looking splendidly healthy, handsome and dazzlingly white.

Those white flowers on a backdrop of deep green leaves really do look nice. This plant is still, of course, a baby, but the plant label says once it is is mature it will be 1.2 metres (4 feet) tall and wide, which is something I am looking forward to enjoying for many years to come.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Book review: The Unusual Life of Edna Walling

Australians don't need to be told about the current voting happening nationwide on the topic of marriage equality. From early reports and opinion polls, it looks like a healthy majority (60% or more) of us will say "Yes" to the idea of making marriage equality the law, as I did.

Haven't we come a long way as a society, at least in this regard? It was only a generation or two ago that the topic of same-sex sex was virtually taboo. As for same-sex marriage, it would have been too radical a concept for most.

Why am I discussing gay people in my gardening blog? Why not? There are millions of wonderful gay gardeners but there's a special reason for raising the topic this time. I'm doing a book review.

I've just finished reading Sara Hardy's biography of the remarkable garden designer, Edna Walling, a person who the average modern reader would happily accept as a wonderful gay gardener, but who because of the taboos of her time kept her private life to herself.

From the moment you see the cover then flick through the photos inside, a modern reader would probably see a familiar gay female persona. 

This is one of the sub-plots coursing through all 266 pages of this book. Would this same woman who felt most comfortable wearing trousers, kept her hair cut short, who smoked a pipe in the evenings and didn't conform to many conservative female norms, be out and proud these days? 

I suspect so, but we'll never know. However, from hints provided in the way she lived, from letters and surviving remembrances of her contemporaries, Edna Walling was certainly an unusual woman who achieved much in her time mostly through sheer hard work and ability, but also through force of personality and a determination to make it, despite it being a man's world.

I am sure she left a lasting impression on all who met her.

If you haven't heard of Edna Walling, that says something about the fleeting nature of fame. In her working years from the 1920s through to the late 1960s, she became Australia's leading garden designer, a very well-known name. She wrote best-selling books and countless magazine articles that gained their authority from the huge number of gardens she designed for clients ranging from the very rich and famous to lesser mortals who simply needed a good garden design.

For many years, and up to the current day, the fact that a home or property on the real estate market had an Edna Walling garden made it both more expensive and easier to get buyers interested.

The National Trust and Heritage Victoria have listed several Edna Walling gardens for preservation, including what must be her most extraordinary achievement: a whole village of cottages and gardens at Bickleigh Vale, near Mooroolbark, in Victoria.

At Bickleigh Vale, not content with just building her own cottage and garden, Edna went into serious debt to buy enough land to create a series of properties with Walling-designed gardens, complete with a carefully designed and planted winding country lane linking them all together. Her clever decision to make the sale of these properties subject to a caveat where she had a degree of control over extensions to the cottages and alterations to the gardens proved to be a valuable factor in creating the village over time.

For gardeners, there is plenty of detail to enjoy. I loved the chapters on Edna's early training at Burnley Horticultural College in Melbourne. Her early days at what was to become Bickleigh Vale village were lonely, hard slog. She built her own house out of local materials. It wasn't all straight and true and the roof leaked and had borers, but it was hers.

There are so many little stories within these pages that I know gardeners, and gardeners who see themselves as nature-lovers, will enjoy.

The author, Sara Hardy, has a conversational style that often makes it seem that she is telling you her latest story over a cup of tea. Her affection for Edna shines through, and the sections where she delves into Edna's personal life are handled with genuine respect blended with fascinated nosiness that stops short of descending into gossip.

This is not a new book. First published 12 years ago, it came to my hands via my wife Pam, who bought it earlier this year, read it, then handed it over to me. Hopefully if you are interested in a very good read about a thoroughly fascinating, original and notable Australian woman, it won't be hard to find. 

The Unusual Life of Edna Walling, by Sara Hardy
Published by Allen & Unwin, a Sue Hines Book, 2005

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Nature's pretty clockwork

Spanish moss flowering again? Must be late October in Sydney. While you couldn't set your clocks by these plants, you could set a calendar by them. 

Here's one of the extremely tiny beauties this morning. Each flower is less than a quarter-inch (5mm) across and you would definitely miss them if you didn't go looking for them. Fortunately for Pammy and me, we know to stay on the lookout for them once October rolls around, and over the last two weeks we could see the minuscule flower buds forming.

The flower pictured above is part of this mass of Spanish moss, which is growing at almost alarming rates, dangling from the branches of our olive tree.

This unusual second location for our massed moss was forced on us by circumstances. This large wodge of old man's beard (Spanish moss's other common name) once thrived on a large grevillea shrub, which collapsed and died last year. The wire framework attached to the walls was once home to a very unproductive, and rapidly fading, passionfruit vine, and so this was our solution. It's working OK, too. Most of the Spanish moss is clinging to the wires and seems to be slowly growing. My big contribution to its health is to regularly water it with a mist spray, if there hasn't been any rain.

Finally, I've added some small strands of Spanish moss to the newly planted fern garden out at the front of our house. They're hanging in there, but it's still a bit early to tell if the Spanish moss is growing yet.

One good short-term effect of the new strands of Spanish moss in the front garden is that they will add to the spooky Halloween look that the marauding, lolly-hungry kids will hopefully like to see on October 31.

I think I might raid our big backyard stores of Spanish moss this weekend and beef up the front garden's spookiness rating ... 

I'm sure that by late October next year, all these fine whisps of moss will be thicker, longer and, if you look carefully, dotted with tiny green flowers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The gift of patience

Yesterday was an enjoyable reminder of both the joys and frailties of being patient. If all goes well, patience of course can have the best of rewards, but in between being sensible and tasting success a few pangs of anxiety lurk in the shadows. Here's how patience unfurled in our garden, from dawn to dusk.

Early in the day it was apparent that Saturday was going to be 'show time' for our white Louisiana iris, a gift from our friends John and Liz. 

By lunchtime the beautifully creamy looking outer petals were waking up, stretching like a waking sleeper.

And then in the late afternoon Her Majesty decided that she was ready to make an appearance, and to say she "did not disappoint" is to fall a long way short of the delight created.

All Pammy and I knew about this Louisiana iris was John's vivid description of it being "white". I am sure this was kindness on his part ... he must have wanted us to discover for ourselves the fine green filigreed tracery patterning each petal. I really love that green.

Of course we in turn had given John a goodly piece of our blue flowered 'Gulf Shores' Louisiana iris, and the good 'late' news is that John says his new blue ones have been flowering very nicely these last few weeks in his nearby home.

From a gardener's point of view the other interesting thing about our white Louisiana iris is that we didn't grow it in a water garden, as we do the blue ones. We have simply run out of space, as all our water garden irises have been doing so well that we now have two whole water pots filled with blue-flowered plants, and there were so many left over that I decided to experiment with growing these extra plants in ordinary potting mix.

When John suggested we swap Louisiana iris plants I happily agreed, but the only spot I could plant his plant was in the "potting mix" pot. Admittedly I have been an extremely good boy, earning a gold star for diligent over-watering of this pot throughout the year. But it has worked, and our reward has been a splendid one this year.

For anyone keen on giving Louisiana iris a go, I suggest talking to a water gardens specialist, and don't just rely on me. However that isn't going to stop me sharing a few tips!

For an iris planted into potting mix I just used ordinary potting mix. The only trick is that I water the daylights out of it year-round, and I also feed it often too, generally over-doing the feeding rather than under-doing it. If unsure, feed some more!

For an iris planted into a water garden, I make up a mix of 50/50 cow manure and ordinary garden soil (ie, not potting mix). I also feed this rich mix with slow-release granules designed for acid-loving plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons. (Osmocote makes the one I use, but I bet there are others.)

I love this white iris so much I think once the flowering has died down, I might devote one of my water pots to becoming a white iris pot, and leave the other as a blue iris pot. And all the leftovers, which will be blue-flowered, will live in the "potting mix" pot that seems to be working out just fine, even if it's not the recommended method for growing these lovely things.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The trouble with pots

The trouble I have with pots is that I wax and wane in my use of them. My garden seems to go through cycles ranging from "sorry, we need minimal pots" to "more pots please" ... and right now, I'm swinging back to using more pots.

I have only made this situation worse because last weekend I tidied up my spare pots area, for the simple reason that this unsightly spot used to be hidden from view. Alas, recent garden renovations have removed the dense screen of ginger plants that concealed the pots, and so now my pots area is neatly sorted into sizes and types. 

That's where the troubled brewed up. For example, as I stacked the wide, shallow dish-shaped pots, I thought to myself that they really could contain all the mixed leafy salad greens that two little people could need. Removing the greens from the vegie beds into the pots would then provide more space for my preference — other vegies — or Pammy's preference — more flowers.

The trouble with that idea is that I bought that same wide, shallow pot several years ago precisely to grow more salad greens. I did it successfully for a few years, but it was a lot more work than simply plonking the salad green seedlings or seeds into a garden bed.

And that's the trouble with pots. They seem like a gardener's best friend, a real problem-solver ... but then a few months later you realise that they are more work. They need more watering, more feeding and every second year or so, complete repotting.

Has this deterred me from entering a new cycle of "more pots please"? No, afraid not. 

And no, it's not a tragic cycle. You see, I have more time on my hands now that I am winding down into a semi-retired pattern of work. Several years ago I was much busier, and staying on top of the workload of keeping potted plants happy was more of a chore.

Despite the fact that I seem to be a remarkably slow learner at times, as I am now entering a positive "you can do it" phase with pots, here are several perfectly good reasons to grow plants in pots.

Limit the size of spreading plants. In this case, it's a pot containing all the oregano we will ever need. In a garden bed, oregano can spread a metre or more if it's happy. Here in the pot it has to be content with 30cm. All I need to do is cut it back every three months. Another truly rotten spreader is mint, which you should never grow in the ground if you have limited space. 

Keep fruit trees down to a manageable size. Our potted Turkish Brown fig tree is content in its pot, and so is its close neighbour, a potted Thai lime tree. In the ground, both would grow much bigger, and our garden already has an olive, a Tahitian lime and a Eureka lemon in the ground, so there is no more room.

Put kitchen garden herbs within easy reach. You can almost smell this fragrant forest of young basil, and as well as using leaves for staples such as tomato sauces or pesto, just a few torn leaves tossed into a garden salad works wonders. Other nearby pots contain mint, tarragon, chives, thyme, rosemary and sage.

Grow specialised plants in potting mixes designed for them. Our garden has all sorts of interesting plants, such as this colourful succulent, Crassula 'Campfire', planted into pots containing potting mixes designed to suit them. As well as succulents, there are bromeliads, orchids and water-loving Louisiana iris. Each requires its own special mix, but if you give plants the exact conditions they love to grow in, they tend to be much happier and easier to look after.  

And so all I really have to offer with this posting is that pots are an essential part of any garden. Their downside is that they are more work, but their upside is that they can solve all sorts of problems, and even allow you to grow a much wider variety of plants than if you just tried to grow everything in the ground. And for a plant-lover like me, that final point seals the deal.

I'll be growing plants in pots for all my days here. It's just that every now and then I'll scale back on them for a while, then I'll bounce back a year or two later filled with fresh enthusiasm for them. 

This waxing and waning, of de-potting then re-potting, is just another of life's and gardening's steady little cycles.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Old-fashioned hydrangeas

I'm a bit of a sucker for anything that's out of fashion. Whether it's collecting garden gnomes, listening to bands with accordion players, or cooking time-consuming recipes, I'm your boy. 

Out in the garden, I'm often growing something that's supposedly out of fashion, and happily so. In a few weeks from now my cottagey old Nigella 'Love in a Mist' blooms will be out again, and today I've planted hydrangeas, to replace our unruly thicket of ornamental ginger which I reported on in my previous posting.

I like blue hydrangeas, and Pammy asked for a white one, so I bought both. This is the label for the blue ones (I bought three small pots at Bunnings for $13.95 each). 

And this is the far more traditional label for the larger and more expensive ($25) white hydrangea that Pammy wanted, which I found at a local garden centre.

Prior to planting I used the good old "put and look" method of figuring out where to plant each of the new people. The three small blue ones will grow together against the fence (and hopefully block our view of it) while the larger white one's job, apart from looking pretty, is to grow to its full 120cm high and wide and block any views of my less than gorgeous compost tumbler bin and various spare pots. 

Fortunately the blue hydrangeas' labels provided very good information on the plant size and spacing, but I have planted mine a bit closer together than recommended, as I want a dense effect from the hydrangeas to cover up the fence entirely.

After planting them, then watering in with seaweed solution, I spread out a good layer of sugar cane mulch to reduce the rampant weeds and retain some semblance of soil moisture. Besides, I just love the way mulched gardens look.

Once you start renovating, there's a "knock-on" phenomenon that applies to renovations both inside the house and outside in the garden. Fix or change anything, and it immediately makes the bit next to it, or behind it, look bad or weird or at least in need of renovation. The "knock-on" effect is that you are then obliged to do something about the next-door section to your renovation. It's a slippery slope of endless renovations ...

Now, in the case of renovating the ginger patch and turning it into hydrangea land, my previously hidden, messy disgrace of a composting area/pot storage zone is now there for all to see. The shame!

And so yesterday morning I spent a few hours pulling out every pot and sorting them out into this much better, much tidier area. I'm so proud of it that here I am including it in my hydrangea blog posting! 

The trouble is, now I've renovated my ginger patch, and then renovated my pot storage area, it has made me rethink how I am using pots in the garden, and that's what I plan to do a posting on next. 

It never ends!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Rumble in the jungle

We're renovating again. This time it's the lush but messy jungle of gingers ... it has to go. Sorry.

The jungle looks pretty ordinary all through spring. The problem is, once the frangipani tree is bare, and after I cut down the nearby lush lemon grass foliage from its six-foot high peak to a mere six-inch stump, you can see too much of the jungle. For nine months of the year it's almost hidden from sight, but now you can see it too clearly. It is an eyesore of dead brown bits ... lots of dead brown foliage beneath the evergreen canopy. I try to cut it back, but it is a fight to make it look even respectable.

Here's the offending foliage from its best angle, where it almost looks nicely jungle-like under the shade of the frangipani.

And here it is while the lemon grass stalks are just little 'uns in late spring. However, for all of September, October and November, the ginger patch looks messy. It needs a lot of cutting back, and despite that effort it rarely looks very appealing.

My problem was simply that I knew it was going to be an appalling job. I didn't even stop to think about the spiders and other creepy crawly life that might not be very pleased by my intrusion. I just concentrated on how much sheer hard work was involved ... and as it turns out, I was right! 

I'm not young anymore, and it has taken me a few days to cut it all down and dig it all out. Once it's reduced to brown rubble, it doesn't look so big, but don't let that fool you.

The worst part, without doubt, was digging out the roots with a mattock. These formed a dense mat about 3 yards long and one yard wide, and at ground level there was barely any soil. 

And beneath one layer of roots I often found a second, deeper layer of roots. These gingers really know how to build an environmental civilisation.

I scoured my shed for every tool I could find to help reduce the patch to a pile. It was an international effort, with a Japanese trimmer, an Aussie mattock, Swiss secateurs, Korean digger and a Japanese cane cutter.

The electric hedge trimmers removed the top layer of foliage, but didn't have much impact on the canes. The mattock somehow got heavier and heavier each time I picked it up, but in the end, like the forwards in a rugby match, the mattock won the "player of the match" award. I could not have done it without this ancient tool.

This jaggedy-edged scythe is called a Niwashi Shark, and it was brilliant at cutting down the canes almost to ground level. It's a Japanese garden tool, but I bought mine from New Zealand, at, several years ago, and it is a well-made tool that feels like it is going to last the next few decades that will probably see me out here on planet Earth.

A wonderful all-round digging too, my Ho-Mi was fabulous at tilling the soil and discovering extra layers of roots once the mattock had "cleared" a section. It too feels like it will last a lifetime, and I particularly like the way the blade of my old Ho-Mi looks like it was forged in the Middle Ages. I bought mine online from the Gundaroo Tiller,, at about the same time I bought my Niwashi tiller and my Niwashi Shark — I think about 10 years ago, and last time I checked online they still seem to be in business.

Finally, the good news. For my shady 3 metres of ground, I am planting some hydrangeas. Pammy asked for a white one, but I also like blue ones, so we're buying both. The spot where the hydrangreas will grow will be shady for most of the time, but exposed to the sunshine in late winter and early spring, so I hope it suits them.

I'm glad I've done all the heavy digging to get rid of the ginger patch now. Five years from now I don't think I'd be physically up to the task. It almost killed me this time round.

I kind of like the idea of returning to growing old-fashioned hydrangeas in my dotage. More my pace these days.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Small starts

Last week, for just a few moments I almost succumbed to a ridiculous thought, but common sense intervened and I changed my mind. 

What was the ridiculous thought? I momentarily felt guilty about starting off some new crops from seedlings, and for just a minute or two headed for the seed stands at the garden centre, instead of wandering outdoors to where all the seedlings were.

Fortunately, a cluster of sensible brain cells rallied and told me to stop being a fool, go buy those nice, healthy seedlings and save yourself four weeks of fussing over seeds in punnets. And that's what I did. I bought a punnet of four Lebanese zucchini seedlings, and a punnet of four Lebanese cucumber seedlings. And now they're planted and they look great.

Growing crops from seed is fun, but you should never feel it is compulsory. I enjoy doing it partly because of the pleasure of growing something from seed, and also partly because the only way to grow rare or unusual varieties is to start them from seed. Your basic average garden centre has an extremely limited range of seedling varieties to choose from, while an Internet full of online seed catalogues has hundreds, sometimes thousands, more seeds to choose from.

Fortunately for me, I like the smaller, light green Lebanese zucchini very much, and there was a perfectly healthy punnet of four of the things just begging to be planted. As many people like to say these days, it was a no-brainer.

Planted 60cm apart into soil enriched with compost and chicken poo. A layer of mulch, some seaweed solution to water them in, and the job was done in no time.

However, the next photo shows a bunch of baby seeds coming up, and that's because this is the best way to grow some plants. This one is yet another crop of chervil, a delicate herb that looks a bit like downsized parsley, with a lightly aniseedy flavour that goes beautifully with vegetables such as zucchini.

Chervil is a relative of parsley, and like parsley it prefers to start life in the garden as a seed sown directly where it will spend its life. Chervil, parsley and several other common vegie and herb crops absolutely hate being transplanted from a starter pot to the ground. It can be done, and is regularly done, but the plants are rarely happy about it.

Speaking of plants which are related to each other, this Lebanese cucumber seedling does look remarkably similar to the zucchini seedling at the top of this page, and that's because both plants are cucurbits. There are almost a thousand cucurbit species, and the best known other cucurbits to ordinary gardeners are all the pumpkins, melons and gourds. 

Cucumbers like to twine and climb, so I have used five slender bamboo stakes to form a teepee for the cucumbers to climb up. The bamboo stakes were quite long, and they all poke about 15 inches (38 cm) down into the soil. The first really windy day will test how strong the structure is, I guess.

I have planted all four seedlings, which is too many, so I plan to let them race up the teepee, and whichever seems the healthiest plant will be the one that remains.

And so here we have some small starts, two from easy-peasy seedlings, and one crop from seed. It certainly is much less work than getting all three crops started from seed ... a much more sensible way for an old gardener to go about a bit of amateur backyard farming.