Friday, August 31, 2018

Doing our bit to help the bees

While pottering around our inner-city garden, there's always some kind of background noise, whether it's merely traffic, neighbours talking, or local birds calling to one another. But the sound I enjoy the most is the hum of bees. 

A native blue-banded bee closes in on an eggplant flower.
Not only is it a happy sound but it's also a vital signal that our backyard garden is a safe place for bees and other insects to go about their work, and make a living. Doing the right thing by bees isn't rocket science. There's just two steps.
1. Plant bee-friendly flowering plants (and there are lots of them)
2. Stop using harmful insect sprays that kill bees and other beneficial insects.
Bees go mad when our lemon tree flowers, which it will do soon.
As spring is upon us here in Australia, and gardeners everywhere are thinking "what can I plant now", it's the perfect time to put in a plug for becoming a bit more bee-friendly, whether you're a balcony gardener, own a rambling country estate or, like Pam and me, have an ordinary suburban backyard.

Our poppies are blooming now, and bees almost bathe in the plentiful pollen.
Now, I've done numerous postings about bees over the years, and this latest one has been prompted by an email I received from Taronga Zoo (for out-of-towners, Taronga Zoo is Sydney's largest and oldest zoo, situated on the edge of Sydney Harbour — visiting Taronga is a part of most Sydney childhoods. It was certainly part of mine, with countless visits there). 

It might come as a surprise to some to know this, but Taronga Zoo cares for its bees in the same way it does for all its other creatures — with loving devotion. This Sydney winter has been very dry indeed — there's a drought on — and so flowers are fewer and life is tougher for Taronga's bee population (and all other bees in Sydney). One simple reason for looking after bees is that Taronga has its own vegie patch, to provide food for its animals, and as every vegie gardener knows, bees play a vital role in pollinating all sorts of crops.

Taronga's beekeeper inspects one of their hives.
What Taronga would like everyone in Sydney to do is simple: make your garden friendlier for bees. So here's some very basic tips on how to get started, but before I do that, I have to include this next photo, just to show you how popular beekeeping has become in Sydney. 

About 200m from my house, the roof of this corner shop in Marrickville is
very probably what my busy backyard bees called "Headquarters". And so
in doing my bit in the inner-city, I'm helping gourmets to be happy. 
Apart from following guideline number 2: "don't use harmful sprays", following guideline number 1: "plant bee-friendly plants" is very easy to do, because there are so many great plants to choose from. The basic rule is this: if it produces a flower, the bees will find it.

Flowering shrubs: lavender probably tops the list, but all daisies are fabulous, too. Shrubs such as abelia and buddleia are famous bee-attractors, but on a small scale little alyssum (sweet Alice) and nasturtiums do a great job, and so do my poppies. But all annual flowers are great for bees, and probably the perfect choice for smaller gardens and balconies. 

Natives: all the flowering native shrubs are brilliant bee magnets, but top choices would include hardenbergia, grevilleas (which come in all shapes and sizes), bottlebrush, westringia (coast rosemary, a very good hedging plant), and native daisies (Brachyscome). 

Herbs: most people think "foliage/leaves" when you say "herbs", but all herbs flower well and bees love them. Basil is terrific (and now is the time to plant some), but oregano, marjoram, sage, rosemary, mint, coriander and lemon balm all do a great job attracting bees. Borage is probably the star of the bee-friendly herb garden, as bees adore its plentiful blue flowers.

Flowering vegetable crops also attract (and need!) bees, especially tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkins, watermelons and squash. So my tip is to plant some low-growing flowers next to your vegie patch, such as alyssum, petunias, low-growing daisies, etc. It's what "potager" gardens are all about: mixing flowers, herbs and vegies together so they attract bees. And besides, potagers just look better.

My citrus trees (lemon, Tahitian lime, Thai lime) all attract stacks of bees, and spring is a great time to plant one, and it's also the perfect time to fertilise them. All other fruit trees are magnets for bees when they are in flower, so if your garden design needs a small tree, think about a fruit tree next time round.

While the name of this thing is a "birdbath" nobody told the bees they can't
visit, so I always make sure there is a gently sloping rock in my birdbath so
bees and other flying little guys can take a drink, especially on a hot day.
So there you go, head off to the garden centre on a "bee-friendly" mission, and help maintain your local honey supply. 

Finally, you can also test out my favourite bee theory: no matter where you put a flowering plant, bees will find it. Go on, plant something in an out-of-the-way spot and keep an eye on it. Once it starts flowering, our little busy, buzzing hard-workers will soon be all over it. That's what I love about bees ... they are so good at their jobs!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Lots of flowers? Must be spring!

"Hey, come and have a look at this," said Pammy, ever the eagle-eyed spotter of all things newsworthy in our garden. We had to get down on our hands and knees, and be up very close, but there it was — the complex, gorgeous mini bloom of our potted succulent. I think it's a graptoveria, but as a succulent amateur I am at all times willing to be corrected on these things. Doesn't matter really, it's the wonderful mini other-worldliness of tiny blooms that had us both captivated.

It's a bit orchidy, this succulent flower, with its red-wine flecks on pearlescent petals.

Even I could spot the next of our spring awakenings — a huge spray of not-quite-yet-open yellow dendrobium orchids.

This spring show has been a few years in the making, as this plant has never flowered before. Over the last few years I have tried my hardest to be nice to it, but without any success. It has always lived with all the other orchids, which manage to flower their heads off like clockwork. But the dendrobium? Nah, sorry. Once all the flowers open fully, I will no doubt do another posting.

This next pink one, a climbing pelargonium, is one of the success stories of my "recovery ward". I bought three plants, put them in a hanging basket in a sunny spot, where they then proceeded to do very little, then started to die off. While I can accept that the fault is all mine, what bugs me is that I didn't have a clue what I was doing wrong.

So I rescued the final, barely surviving plant, repotted it into a smaller, normal pot and it has been keeping my orchids company in a more sheltered spot for the last year or so. And now it's looking happy again. Should I attempt to move it back to the hanging basket? Well, that is why I bought it ... but I am beginning to see that as the "hanging basket of doom" and I can't quite work up the bravery to try it yet.

Next in the spring slideshow is good old, never-fail, grow-them-every-year poppies. Pam loves them. Pam cuts them for vases in our house. And this year we have yellow, white and orange poppies. Lovely.

It's nice to be appreciated. The deal is, if I am nice to my lemon tree and scatter lots of chicken poo under the tree and water it well, the lemon tree produces lots of flowers, and a few months later, lots of fruit. So far it's all going according to plan. 

Even though evergreen Sydney springs aren't quite as spectacular as they are in colder climates, they're still a delightful time to be a gardener. As well as the flowers I have posted here, yellow clivias and vivid orange scadoxus aren't far off blooming, and the native orchid flower buds are all jostling for a good spot ... but I'll call a temporary halt at this stage. Lots to look forward to!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Gifts from friends

At long last, and I mean after waiting 18 months, a bulb given to Pam and me by our friends John and Liz has finally flowered. That's it pictured below. "What is it?" you ask. Its formal name is Veltheimia bracteata, but forest lily is its other, common name, and as it's another flowering bulb from Africa we have planted it in our little South African patch sheltered under the shade provided by our frangipani tree.

Like our Scadoxus bulbs and our yellow-flowered clivias, Veltheimias do best in a shady spot. Normally, they flower in late winter and early spring every year, but as we planted John and Liz's bulbs in autumn last year, they promptly went into a sulk and for a while I thought that they were gonners, as their leaves died down and disappeared. But no, during late summer they started to poke out their new set of deep green, wide leaves from the broad bulb, and hope was restored that we'd get a show this year. 

As Veltheimias come in a few different colours, notably pinks, greens and yellows, we didn't know what to expect, but once this flower head was forming in July, we knew it'd be pink.

John and Liz gave us two bulbs (this was in an exchange suggested by John, who wanted some of my blue-flowered Louisiana iris in exchange for one of his white-flowered Louisiana iris. He tossed in the Veltheimias as a bonus.) And I think I got a wonderful deal, as his white iris is a stunner. I'll be doing a posting on it some time in October, when its show is on. Here's how the plants looked in July, with the stalks about 30cm then, but now they're closer to 60cm high.

And as it turns out, one plant is a bit healthier and happier than the other (this year at least) but both are basically looking pretty good. I haven't got a clue whether baby Veltheimias will ever appear (as they have done with the nearby orange-flowered Scadoxus) but judging from the slow progress with the Veltheimias over these first 18 months, I don't think there'll be many newbies to cope with.

And so here's the last addition to our garden, yet another plant that reminds us of good friends. We have so many plants here that have come from friends as gifts, and they really do help you to think of those people more often that you might normally would. 

So, if you're stuck for an idea for a gift to give a gardening friend, you can never go wrong with a plant, especially one that's a bit interesting and unusual, like this forest lily.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Cooking bibles & coriander

It was only recently, on June 29 in fact, that I was writing something about growing coriander. At the time I was berating myself for not having much faith in my ability to save coriander seeds and then raise new plants from them. Well, as it turns out, I was happily wrong once again, and all the coriander plants are doing well. 

Too well in fact. So now I have a bit too much coriander. Here's the pix to show my very minor predicament.

The larger pot of shop-bought coriander seedlings has been harvested a few times, and with follow-up liquid feeds, plentiful water and a very sunny Sydney winter, it has grown even more lushly. I don't really need much more ... but ... 

... the pots of baby seeds are rapidly turning into two more gluts of leafy coriander. It's not really a problem, but with too much coriander there is but one course of action ... turn to my beloved cooking Bible for a favourite recipe to use up large amounts of coriander in one delicious hit.

Here's my Asian cooking Bible. It's "The Complete Asian Cookbook" by Charmaine Solomon. Mine is an early paperback edition from 1978 (the original came out in 1976). Battered looking, but still in use all the time.

A HUGE thrill for me was back in 1996, when I was deputy editor of House & Garden magazine, and I went out to Charmaine Solomon's Sydney house to do a cooking and gardening story. Of course as a fan-boy I took my copy of her book with me, and she signed it for me. Wow, this kitcheny, gardeny boy was star-struck. 

Then Charmaine had some fun flicking through the book to see which recipes I had used the most. There are lots of turmeric-stained pages, but she found this one, all splattered with spice dust, with two of my favourite chicken dishes. Tandoori chicken (the dish I cooked for Pam on our first date back in early 1989 when she came around to my place for dinner) and Chicken and Yoghurt curry, easily my favourite mild chicken curry.

And so, to use up some of my excess quantity of fresh coriander leaves, Charmaine's books offers countless different delicious ways to do it — including that chicken and yoghurt curry, which uses up 1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves — but I have chosen instead her fresh coriander chutney (from spice-spattered page 88), a simple, dollop-on condiment that goes beautifully with so many dishes from the sub-continent. 

Fresh coriander chutney (Dhania Chatni)

1 cup firmly packed coriander leaves
6 spring onions (scallions or green onions) cut into smaller pieces
2 fresh green chillies
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

Make this in an electric blender. Put everything in a blender (you can cut down the chilli heat either by removing the seeds or limiting it to just one chilli). Blend it all to a smooth, green paste. Once made, put into a small bowl, cover and chill in the fridge until needed.

PS: you can make a “fresh mint chutney” by substituting mint for the coriander, or you could even use 50:50 coriander and mint for another variation.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Position, position, position

If there's one thing I have learned in a few decades of gardening, it's this: put a plant in a spot that it prefers and half your worries are over. 

Now, some plants are so versatile and tough that they make a mockery of this rule and proceed to grow beautifully in a dozen different spots.

But there are many other plants for which the real estate agents' mantra of "position, position, position" remains the golden rule to gardening happiness, and pictured below is one such happy camper: Pieris japonica.

Our Pieris started flowering last week and is still building to its late winter crescendo, but already it is showing off sprays of its delightfully dainty bell-shaped blooms. It looks like this will be its best year, but that isn't saying much, because the plant is about four years old and this is the first time it has appeared to be truly happy.

In the three previous years, I had the pot in other spots in the garden, and none of them truly suited the Pieris. This year's spot is now its official happy home, and here it will remain for as long as it lives. 

Here is the pot in its current, preferred spot. In the first year I had it in too much shade, and it produced very few flowers. In the second year I let it get scorched by the sun, parts of the plant actually died and it looked awful after I pruned off the dead bits. In the third year it went back to shade but didn't get quite enough morning sun, and didn't put on much of a show, but it did seem happier. This fourth spot, however, seems to have everything it needs. 

First of all, there's lots of gentle morning sunshine. Second, it gets midday filtered light (from the canopy of the lime tree overhead) and third, there's no afternoon sun at all (blocked by the western fence, and the big bird's nest ferns nearby).

The rest is up to me, and it isn't much work. Watering is the main job, but adding some slow-release fertiliser is essential, but I also find that if I am watering nearby vegies and I have some leftover liquid food in the bottom of the watering can, the Pieris gets a little extra feed occasionally.

Is that all? No, actually. The other special trick is that I bought a huge amount of 50% strength shade cloth, and during summer, when a nasty Sydney scorcher is forecast, I cover the whole pot with shade cloth until the hot, dry weather ends. 

In previous years I didn't use the shade cloth and the plant suffered on hot days. As mentioned earlier, whole branches have carked it in summer, so the poor plant has had a bumpy ride!

It has been worth it, not just because these flowers are such lovely little baubles, but also because this is one of "Pammy's plants". She bought it as a baby at a local florist's shop and brought it home, handed it over to me, fixed me with an "it's your responsibility" gaze, and ever since then I have been trying my best to look after her beautiful little Pieris japonica.

This has mostly been a story about finding the best position for a tender, slightly fussy plant by trial and error. But you can't blame the poor Pieris for that. It's not an Australian native, and Sydney isn't really its ideal climate, either. 

It's native to eastern China, Taiwan and Japan, and is found there in cool climate forests, where it gets the filtered light and moisture that it loves. My north-east facing Sydney garden is too hot and open for it, but we've found a way to keep it alive and a spot that it seems to like.

If you have a more shaded garden, and especially if you are also in a cooler climate zone, this is a lovely plant to grow. There are lots of named cultivars with flowers in other colours, too. And out of a pot and planted in the ground, it can grow 1-2 metres. I prefer to keep it in a pot, simply because a pot allows me to move the plant around the garden until I find a spot it likes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Good mornings

All the gardening gurus in the Southern Hemisphere will tell you what a lovely thing it is to have a "north-facing" garden. And they're right. Yes, you get more sunshine if your garden faces the sun, and for lots of plants, especially flowering plants and quick-growing vegies, a sunny garden is a little patch of heaven.

Our garden doesn't quite manage heavenly, pure-north-facing perfection, but it does face north-east. It leans towards the morning sun and tends to shy away from the afternoon sun. I'm just the same, myself. Love the mornings, hate the afternoon heat, too. It's nice to be simpatico with your own patch of ground ...

And so as I looked out the back door this morning, the first thing to catch my eye was the way the morning sun was lighting up the first of this year's Iceland poppies.

It really is the prettiest time of day to be here, and as the early mornings are almost always a time when it's just Pammy and me here in our garden, we are constantly delighted and dazzled by sparkly little details backlit by morning sun.

Everything here looks good in the morning sun. Even the washing drying on the clothesline – well, if it's a few tea towels and some of Pammy's colourful cotton blouses – looks like a painting.

Every year I plant poppies for Pammy, and when there are several up in bloom all at the same time, she brings them inside and pops them in a vase. Nice tradition, bringing the morning sunshine inside ...