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.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Minty goodness

Good. Our native mint bushes, or Prostanthera, are putting on their first spring flower show as mature plants, and they're a lovely sight. And, if you get up close to them, they're a lovely smell, too, as they get their common name from their mint-scented foliage.

We planted three of these as small things in the spring of 2015. Last year they put on a small show, but the plants hadn't really grown to full size by that stage. So 2017 is their official backyard debut, by my reckoning.

Here's two of the three bushes. The one on the left has been the "struggler" of the three. It's held up by stakes and a flexy soft cord attached to the low wall behind. The one on the right, which is the middle of the trio, is the star and has actually been cut back a few times already, as it is monstering the hanging baskets behind it.

Speaking of hanging baskets, here they are doing their thing behind the mint bushes this morning. 

The red geranium flowers belong to our prolific 'Big Red' geranium which also grows like heck down at ground level. In the centre of this shot are two pink flowers of our poorly performing ivy geraniums, which were the original inhabitants of this line of hanging pots. Out of six ivy geranium plants only two thrived, so that's when I decided that whacking in some cuttings of Big Red would fix things, which it did ...

Meanwhile, back at the mint bushes, I blurted out to Pam my main fear at this stage, and it's this. More than once in my 26 years of gardening here, I have been through the cycle of
A. Plant natives as babies, watch them grow well, promising much ...
B. Enjoy superb flower displays for a year or two, or maybe four or five ...
C. Then, without much warning, the native plant suddenly keels over and dies.

I know it's a pessimistic note to finish on, but there, I have gone and said it. I love native plants very much but experience has taught me to enjoy them, but not get too attached to them, either.

Right now, however, I'm really enjoying these beautiful mint bushes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From disgraceful to graceful

While I spend an inordinate amount of time tending to my backyard, I am afraid I am guilty of neglecting my front yard. It's so easy-care that I don't water it, and feeding is a once-a-year thing. And guess what? It looks neglected ... in fact parts of it are a disgrace, and so recently, at Pam's prompting, I've given part of the front yard a much-needed makeover.

Here's a photo of how it looks, if you're a pedestrian in our street. That enormous blue-grey thing is a "groundcover" Cootamundra wattle (Acacia baileyana) that doesn't like to be confined by walls and so has grown into a 2m tall, 4m wide spreading monster. I have to cut it back regularly. However, the truly disgraceful thing is what was growing under the wattle: weeds, lots of weeds.

While I am not averse to publishing weed photos on my blog, it's usually done in the interests of either "what weed is that?" or "gosh I hate this weed". Today's weed photo is a simple 'hang your head in shame Jamie" shot of a neglected, weedy patch that's largely out of sight ... well, out of sight if pedestrians don't look as they walk by.

Two hours and eight bags of wood chip mulch later, it looked like this. Much better.

Pammy's great idea was to grow ferns under the dappled shade of the wattle, and so I went fern hunting. The little pots at the front are from Bunnings, Australia's hardware/homeware/garden warehouse behemoth retailer. The taller things at the back are from a local old Greek guy who sells all sorts of plants from his backyard. These look like fishbone ferns, they're considered a weed by many but they almost certainly won't die no matter what. 

I also found a great source of ferns at a little garden centre in South King Street in Newtown. The staff there were lovely, knowledgeable and I wish I had bought everything from them. If you live in my Sydney inner-west area, do check out this nursery. It's near the intersection with Alice Street, you can't miss it. Nice place to shop.

Next I adopted my old boss, Don Burke's great garden design/planting principle of "put and look". All you need to do is get all your plants in pots, and put the pots where you think they should go, then see how they look, then rearrange them until you've got the spacings, heights and other factors sorted. Then go around and plant the pots where they are. Works a treat.

Here's how it all looks when planted out. I'm not sure how big everything will grow, but that doesn't bother me much, as I'm also not sure which ones will survive and thrive, and which ones will die. I know the fishbone ferns won't die ...

... and I am also confident that the bird's nest fern (the one at the back with the wider foliage) will also not die and will probably grow quite big, at least 1m in all directions, up across and sideways.

As soon as I saw the label on this little guy "Macho fern" I had to have it. Whether it lives up to its tough-buy name is another matter, but I bought two and so I'll let them duke it out with the elements over the coming summer.

While I have tried to choose ferns with different shapes and forms of foliage, for variety, I decided a bit more foliage colour would be a welcome addition. Now, this next photo below is of my "hopes" not of what I planted. Projectionist, next slide please ...

Regular readers of my blog with excellent memories might recognise this Begonia maculata and its wonderful spotty foliage (and pretty white dangling earrings of white blooms) as it was my Garden Amateur Plant of the Year for 2015. Sadly, these were its glory days when it loved its first Sydney spring and summer, after being planted out as one of Pam's ex-office plants that grew too well under her care. The last two winters haven't been kind to it, but it is still alive, and so my brilliant plan is to take numerous cuttings from the parent plant and hope that a few of them grow on to become a chip off mum's award-winning block.

And so this is how they looked yesterday. A bunch of cuttings (there are several more). To cover all options I have some cuttings in pots in a mini greenhouse, I have also shoved several more straight into the front garden soil, saying a hearty "good luck" to them all. And a few more will sit in jar of water, in the hope that roots will sprout that way (my Googling of begonia propagation says it's a good bet).

As well as adding a dash of begonia magic, I've raided our plentiful supplies of Spanish moss, and now the craggy undersides of the wattle are festooned with thin tresses of grey Spanish moss. Good luck to them, too, I say.

So my job is to break a habit of the last several years and actually get out there into the front garden much more often, turn on the hose and make sure all the ferns get a goodly drink. If it all goes well, I am sure I will provide an update in a few months' time. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Signs of recovery

"It's not a garden, it's a hospital ward." That's how one friend described her garden full of sick plants, and I have thought of her during the last few months while I have been nursing our sick Pieris japonica back to health. Beneath my veneer of seeming to be an organic goody two-shoes, I tend to be quite a ruthless gardener. Sure, I'll tend to unwell plants for a while, but if they seem like a hopeless case, then out they go.

But not the Pieris. It's one of "Pammy's plants" and so I am duty-bound to do my best with it. She brought it home one day, from a local florist's shop, and handed it to me to add to our garden. Nice plant, but deep down I suspected it'd be trouble ... 

Here's the patient in full bloom this morning. The glossy green leaves look pretty healthy, too, so what's the problem?

The other half of the plant is dead. In fact a few months ago I cut off the whole back half of the plant as it was dying rapidly. This left us with an ugly, lop-sided patient to care for, but the good news is that there are signs of hope!

Here's the lush bronze hope-inspiring foliage sprouting all over the back half of our Pieris.

The great thing is that there's not just one or two new sprouts — the whole plant is covered in new baby growth. The acid test will be how the plant goes through the next Sydney summer, which I suspect will be a hot and dry one.

When Pammy brought the Pieris home last year I knew I was in for a challenge to keep this plant happy. You will occasionally see healthy Pieris growing in Sydney gardens, so it's not impossible, but my starting point was knowing that this plant prefers cooler climates than Sydney's. Pieris does better further south and up in the mountains.

So I decided to keep it in a biggish pot, and place the pot in a warmer spot in winter, but a cooler spot in summer. Whatever I did was wrong, as half the plant died off over the summer. I cut out all the dead bits, then moved the pot to a sunnier spot for the winter, and plied the plant with seaweed solution every four weeks. The seaweed (eco-seaweed) is not a fertiliser. It's a plant tonic that encourages roots to grow, and generally lowers stress in sick plants. 

I also kept up the water to the pot, without water logging it, and finally it started to show some growth as the spring warmth arrived.

One tip with sick plants is NOT to feed them if they are not showing any signs of growth. Just keep adding seaweed solution. Once you see some positive signs, like new foliage, then start a gentle feeding program, and only then.

So I've given the pot a single dose of liquid organic-based feed (Powerfeed, mixed up and watered in via a watering can), and have followed that up with some slow-release fertiliser pellets that will trickle down food over the next three months. Once the summer comes on, I'm looking for a spot that gets morning sun but shade for the rest of the day.

Wish me luck. As it's Pammy's plant I am trying extra-hard to keep it happy. I feel like I'm a doctor with a tricky patient. This is not a good space for a gardener to occupy but sometimes you have to nurse plants back to health. 

I'm trying everything. Pam's mum, Val, says she talks to her plants and she's a green-thumb with two verandahs full of happy plants. So I'm going to start talking to the Pieris, just in case Val is right.

Friday, September 8, 2017


One of my favourite experiences in our garden is simply to step out into it every morning, to see what's happening. In Spring I'm guaranteed to find something new every day. Just like me, it's alive and breathing (but unlike me it's young and pretty and growing fast). Oh well, I'm happy to settle for "it's great to be alive".

And so here's a photo-driven little posting of just some of the lovely things I found in our garden this morning.

I think we're at "peak native orchid" today. The show has been brewing for a few weeks but this morning all of them are on song. 

Pammy wants me to send her this close-up of a tiny native orchid bloom, taken with the camera about an inch away from the small but perfectly formed bloom. I think she can sense a watercolour painting coming on ...

Speaking of small but perfectly formed blooms, the first of our purple mint bush blooms made an appearance this morning. As I have three bushes and each is covered in flower buds, these are the first wave of what promises to be a few thousand more. Can't wait ...

And to finish off our purple patch, our potted common sage, the kitchen garden herb, has started to do its thing.

Just a few feet from the sage, also growing in a pot, the Thai lime plant is making good use of all the spring fertiliser I fed it with a few weeks ago. The young "double" leaves are the freshest green, every nook and cranny is filled with bum-like blooms and all is good in the fragrant, spicy Thai flavouring department.

A much quieter chap, the Turkish Brown fig looks such a treat as the morning sun shines through its new green leaves every morning. After its winter repotting, I am hoping for good things this summer. No pressure, though ...

Our Westringia 'Elizabeth Bough', covered in light pink blooms, cuddles up close with the astonishingly capable geranium 'Big Red', which flowers pretty much all year round.

And last of all, in a deep, dark corner of the garden when the sun doesn't get much of a look in, the yellow clivias have decided the time is right. I love how they know this stuff.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hello, Instagram ...

File this one under shameless self-promotion ...

I have joined Instagram, and you can find me under the name


Pictured above is the full photo which is the basis for the tiny little photo that is my Instagram "Profile" shot. You might notice it has some garden gnomes in it. I do like garden gnomes, but my Instagram feed isn't all garden gnomes ...

... In fact what I am doing on Instagram is posting lots of photos from my last 10 years of garden blogging, as a way of learning how Instagram works, so I can be the IT guy for my darling girl, Pammy, who is now also on Instagram, with her much more interesting array of paintings and other artworks. 

You can find her at @pamelahorsnellartist

So now we're an Instagram family.