Friday, November 27, 2020

The kindness of good people


I wasn't planning on doing an update on how my broken bones are healing, but today started with a knock at the door and a very pleasant surprise that gave me an idea for this blog posting about kindness.

If you aren't one of my regular readers, you might
wonder what I mean by "broken bones". Here's 
the evidence, a broken heel encased in a very
colourful purple fibreglass cast. If I behave myself
the cast comes off on December 15, a bit over
two weeks away.

Now, onto this morning's pleasant surprise. Our neighbour, Jane, from two doors down the hill, came to the door with the loveliest bunch of hydrangeas cut from the bush which is "going mad" right now in Sydney's spring. She had heard about my broken hoof and just wanted to wish me well. 

This simple, kindly gesture has become one of the themes of these last six weeks. Neighbours all around us have offered to help out however they can, especially with car transport. Close friends have actually done the driving for us when needed, delicious treats from friends' creative kitchens have been delivered, and all sorts of people have been in touch just to ask how we're both going. 

The kindness started even at the moment back in mid-October when I initially hurt myself. Later on, once I emerged from the hospital's emergency ward wearing a brand new plaster cast on my leg and wobbling along on a shiny set of crutches, two young men wearing turbans on their head rushed over to help me make it to the taxi rank. (I think they were Sikhs, but they were definitely also good Samaritans). One fellow whipped out his mobile phone and summoned a cab on his app for me, and when the taxi arrived they flagged it down so I only had a few awkward steps to make before I slumped into the back of the cab. My thankyous and their best wishes were warmly exchanged ... and now six weeks later I am still so grateful for their simple acts of kindness to a total stranger.

Meanwhile, I have discovered a completely new side to my darling Pammy. After 30 years of marriage we've got our respective household job descriptions quite nicely sorted. For all that time I have been the one to do the gardening and any heavy lifting, and she has been the creative person who comes up with ideas, who spots pest control problems on plants and generally offers good advice on what we should do next. We garden as a team, but I'm the one who gets covered in dirt.

The breakthrough to this old regime came early ... and it happened in the kitchen. We're keen on recycling vegie scraps, and composting is my job! So when the little vegie scrap bin filled up, she asked "what do I do with this now?". With my broken foot it's a very long way down to the back of the property and the compost bin, and my first utterly sexist reaction was to suggest we forget about the scraps and composting until I healed up. "Nonsense, where is it, what do you do?"

Well, the truth be told, compost bins are almost rocket science, but not quite. You see, you have to remove the lid from the bin, tip in the contents of the scraps bin, and replace the lid. So it's incredibly complicated. And worst of all, down there near the shed, it's a bit yucky, and there might be spiders there, too. 

And so ever since becoming compost bin attendant, Pammy has been adding my "boy's job" skills to her repertoire, each time doing it with effortless aplomb.

She's been watering the garden on all the days when rain hasn't been forecast, pulling out weeds, picking up fallen fruit and trimming back over-growth. And the garden is looking quite nice, actually.

Then Pam very sensibly decided that we needed to get in a professional team of heavy duty gardeners for a few hours, and two strapping lads whipped out their chainsaws and powered hedge trimmers and in a cacophony of noise and activity all manner of overgrowth was cut back, carried to the truck and disappeared. That's how to manage an overgrown garden!

She has been magnificent over these last six weeks, especially when you consider that she's as busy as can be with her art teaching at the same time.

And so, to finish off this update on the fun and games at our place, here's a few photos, taken this morning, to share.

Our potted New South Wales Christmas Bush has never looked
so red nor lasted so long. It usually colours up in late October
and runs out of puff well before Christmas, but at least it will
provide good festive colour well into December this time.

I planted silver beet seeds just a few days before I broke my
foot, and so all this excellent progress is due to the watering
skills of my watercolour girl Pammy. 

And on the same day I planted the silverbeet seeds I also
planted a Jap pumpkin seedling, and it too is loving life.
Our original thought was to be bossy and cut it back if it
spread too far but right now we're thinking of it as a
"very big groundcover with edibles" and we like that idea. 

And so the news here from the land of the broken-footed gardener is that for the last six weeks I have been surrounded by the kindness of strangers, of friends, of neighbours and, most of all, my wonderful woman. I am truly a very lucky boy.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Well, that didn't last long

Well, there I was thinking that gardening is a safe and easy way to pass the time, and I end up in the emergency ward at Westmead Hospital with a broken ankle.

The short version of the story is that I was doing some gardening at Pam's mother's townhouse, fixing up the mess of pots and plants on her ground-floor balcony. The last phase of the successful operation was to hose down the balcony, then return the hose back to the garden area behind her townhouse.

It was such a low balcony that the 60cm (2 feet) drop from the tiled floor onto the grass below presented no obvious dangers, and so off I jumped. My left foot landed on the soft green lawn perfectly, no problems. But my right foot landed right on top of a hidden concrete edging strip around the lawn. Suddenly a little 60cm drop felt like a plummet into the abyss. Ouch.

And pictured below, this is how my right ankle looked about four hours later, in the Emergency Ward.

The prognosis isn't too bad, but it doesn't involve any gardening. I need to have my leg in plaster, and my right leg comfortably elevated, for about six weeks. Then more X-Rays and I'll find out what comes next.

So, dear readers, following my long garden-blogging lay-off from late 2018 until just a month or so ago in 2020, and my brief re-appearance, I'm afraid there's going to be a short lay-off from gardening blogging at least until December, and perhaps until early 2021, depending on how things go.

All I can recommend is that no matter how small the drop, no matter how safe it looks, don't jump off any balconies whatsoever. I have learned my lesson the painful way. I am grounded!

Friday, October 9, 2020

Waiting for Good-o


It's hardly rational, but I always manage to have moments of silent panic each year when my Louisiana irises start to bloom. I blame the blue ones, because they show up early. Too early in fact. About two weeks before the white ones.

And I really love the white ones. So, every year, there's a two week period when I manage to convince myself that maybe I've done something wrong, and the white ones won't appear at all. Silly boy. 

Double delight this morning, two white Louisiana irises.

It was only few days ago that I wondered 'had I accidentally thrown out the white-flowered plants' rhizomes last year while repotting?' No, surely not. 

But I am keen enough that, every now and then, just for a few nano-seconds of self-doubt, I allow these thoughts a subversive whisper in my ear.
That's all history now. Last year I had to repot my Louisiana irises, as they had multiplied so much they had totally outgrown their pot. In fact, I had to set up a second, smaller water garden pot to cope with the overload. Even then I still had to toss out some excess rhizomes, simply because I had so many. These things are really vigorous growers, but I must admit it's a nice problem to have. 

Louisiana iris flowers telegraph the colours to come a few
days in advance.

It's hard to be there for the actual moment the flowers open,
but these guys are sooo close.

Then, next thing you know, they're open and if you could
talk to them they'd say they've been open for ages. Where were you?

Of course the thing that makes my white irises so special to
me is the green bits. A totally all-white iris with no green stripey bits would be a pale imitation of the real thing.

There are tinges of green deep within each bloom, but it's the stripes that really get me. They look like they're hand-painted with a slender brush.

The whole glorious flower show will all be over two weeks from now. That'll be it for another year, but the wait for Good-o has been worth it yet again. 

However, when you factor in the two weeks of glorious blue irises prior to the white ones, it's a month-long, very delightful way to announce to everyone that spring is well and truly here. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

The natives are restful


Pammy sees to it that the interiors of our house are always brightened by flowers in vases, whether they're picked from the garden or bought home from a florist's shop.

And in the last few weeks it has been gorgeous natives — lots of them — that have been filling the house with their beautiful blooms. I find the effect quite restful.

Flannel flowers, my favourite native flowers. While everyone naturally thinks of them as white, I am also captivated by their subtle greens that feature not only in the centre, but are also flecked on the petals, especially as they start to fade. And besides, they look like soft fabric.

How come all the native beauty? Pammy has been running a series of weekend art classes (all sold out, the series finished last weekend) at two venues in Sydney. Pictured above is a shot from her class at Acquire@Design in King Street Newtown.

Run by dressmaker and fashion designer Karen Kwok, Acquire is a designer store selling original fashions, plus a skilfully curated, eclectic selection of designer homewares. And it has a big, long, wide dressmaker's table in the centre, where small classes can relax and learn watercolour skills following Pammy's expert tuition. 

Pam's other weekend courses are conducted at Connie Dimas Jewellery in Dulwich Hill. Connie is an innovative jewellery designer, and she also has a big table to cater for a variety of art classes for small groups.

To finish off all the plugs, I'd better tell you where to find Pamela Horsnell the artist and art teacher online. She is on Instagram at @pamelahorsnellartist, and her website is at 

Onto the flower show!

This is Banksia coccinea, commonly called the scarlet banksia, and most commonly a scarlet-red flower too. But there are orange forms like this one, and it's such a good cut flower for vases. This specimen is two weeks old and still looking good.

Not sure what kind of wattle this is, but it's pretty while it lasts, which unfortunately is not that long. But when seen as part of a huge shrub in bloom in gardens, it's a show-stopper.

With this yellow-flowered eucalyptus, you get spectacular gumnuts which, when their browny-red lids pop off, reveal outrageously big, yellow blooms. Nectar-eating birds can spot them from a mile away.

Kangaroo paws come in many colours, but I always remember driving along narrow coastal roads in Western Australia in springtime, with yellow kangaroo paws six feet high forming a big beautiful golden wall on both sides of the road, the way tall grasses do. It seemed other-worldly to be in a sea of kangaroo paws.

Like the Banksia above, this pink waratah is two weeks old and still going strong. For overseas readers who might not be familiar with waratahs, each bloom is up to five or so inches across, and in the wild each waratah shrub in bloom can have a few dozen of these stunners. They're the official state emblem of my home state, New South Wales, where they grow in abundance in our cooler zones, such as up in the mountains.

Speaking of wild waratahs, the closest we can get to that is the bunch of waratahs grown by our friend Lou on his South Coast property at Bermagui. Unlike the waratahs sold in florist's shops, which stay tightly packed for quite some time, Lou's native versions opened out within a few days of arriving.

When you mention native flora it's not just all about flowers. There's gumnuts, and these come in so many captivating sizes and shapes that any good display of natives in vases should include some gumnuts. These little ones (that look like they are dusted in icing sugar) will be going back to Connie Dimas' jewellery store, where Connie will use them as templates for some new creations.

The gumnut leftovers of a yellow eucalyptus flower show. And did I mention that eucalyptus leaves are just as varied, beautiful and desirable as gumnuts?

Another gumnut pic to show you, with a flannel flower on the side.

Beloved of florists, Geraldton wax seems simple at first glance, that is until you peer into what is going on inside each bloom...

A vase of flannel flowers will brighten any room, soothe any aching soul.

These bottlebrush flowers might not look that spectacular, but go easy on them: they're just tough street kids fending for themselves. The streets in my area have countless red Callistemons (bottlebrushes) in bloom right now, an excellent street tree.

And last but not least, a big 'thank you' to our friend Jolanda, who allowed Pam to pop around to her garden, secateurs in hand, and trim off a selection of grevillea blooms, gumnuts and eucalyptus foliage for use in her native flora art classes.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Sowing seeds to ease the covid boredom

First up, a big, warm THANK YOU everyone for all your lovely messages saying things like “welcome back” “wondered where you got to” “was thinking of you only the other day” etc etc. (Not one saying "oh no, he's back"). You’re such nice people! 

On with the show.

Last posting I mentioned that I was going to do something about growing things from seed, because that’s been my main activity ever since the COVID-19 pandemic turned the whole world upside down early this year.

Like all other sensible people, I’ve been avoiding crowded spaces wherever possible. I do my supermarket shopping (mask on!) in the early morning hours, when it's fairly empty, and I haven’t been to a major gardening centre for more than six months — and yet I’ve been very busy growing crops of herbs, vegies and flowers during all this time.

The reason for that is simple: seeds. I’ve bought some of the seeds I need at the supermarket, and others that I can’t find there I have bought online.

So what have I been raising from seed?

Mesclun: this is just a mix of different salad greens, including several varieties of lettuce, plus rocket, lamb’s lettuce, a small Asian green like tatsoi, plus sharper tasting mizuna and red radicchio. Each seed supplier has its own mesclun mix. I'm growing mesclun in long, deep planter troughs that edge our outdoor entertaining area.

Coriander: one big pot is all I need. I sowed a batch in April, then when it started to tire in July, I sowed another batch.

Chives: this is the first time I've sown chives from seed, and it's worked so well I might do it this way every year. My chives pot always loses the will to live in midwinter, when it becomes a solid clump of pot-bound roots in its pot. In previous years I've either divided up the clump and replanted the best ones, or I've taken the lazy route and just bought another punnet of seedlings. From now on, it's seeds, ho!

Parsley: this is a pain to do, as parsley can take 3-4 weeks for the seeds to sprout, but it's a good reliable way to rejuvenate the parsley patch if you get started in late winter.

Poppies: usually I buy seedlings of Iceland poppies to grow for Pammy, but this year I started them off from seed a few months ago, and they're blooming nicely now. Nowhere near as easy and convenient as buying seedlings in late April, but not difficult to grow from seed, either.

Sweet peas: after last year's success with my first sowing of seed, I've expanded the size of the sweet pea patch and moved it to a sunnier spot. So far, so good.

Shallots (green onions): the thing I hate about buying punnets of shallot seedlings from garden centres is that even one punnet has too many seedlings, so I've got into the routine of sowing a small number of seeds every few weeks to keep production going. During the pandemic lockdown my culinary adventures have included lots of stir-fries, and learning all sorts of noodle dishes, and you end up getting through a lot of shallots when you start cooking a lot of Asian food.

Sowing seeds in pots

Sowing seed is easy in pots using my ‘scatter and cover’ method. Here's how I do it (I'm sowing coriander seeds, simply because they are pale and big, so you can actually see them in the photos). The basic principles apply to all sorts of other seeds (ie, chives, shallots, basil, parsley, chillies, tomatoes, lettuce, mesclun).

First up I smooth out a bed of fresh potting mix so it is flat and even, and reaches almost near the top of the trough, but not quite. 

Then I scatter the seed from the packet as evenly as I can, making sure to err on the side of scattering too many seeds, rather than too few (I can thin out the crop a few weeks later on). 

Here's a cool trick ... read the instructions! Seed packets will tell you how "deep" to sow the seeds. In this case, with coriander, it's 5mm deep.

So, I scatter seed-raising mix* fairly thinly over the seeds, about 5mm deep in this case (without getting too anxious about how accurate you are). But do make sure it's enough to cover the seeds so you can’t see them anymore. 

* (By the way, for people outside Australia, seed-raising mix is a very fine-grained potting mix. Maybe a cuttings or propagation mix is the closest thing if you can’t find seed-raising mix.) 

Finally I use a mist spray setting on my fancy multi-setting hose nozzle (that I bought in an Asian Bargain Shop for $8, and which has worked well for years) to dampen the soil well but not drench it messily.

I mist the pot every morning until the seeds sprout. And if I can manage it, I like to keep pots out of the hot sun in a shaded area until they sprout, then expose the pots to more sun as the plants grow. Sometimes, with big heavy troughs, that isn't possible, so I just make sure to keep seedlings exposed to full sun well watered at all times.

Here's how the mesclun trough looked like after about two weeks, with lots of babies coming up. With a mesclun mix the fast-sprouting seeds like rocket and mizuna are up within four days. Some of the other seeds can take several days more to appear, sometimes up to two weeks. 

Coriander grows at a more leisurely rate, taking about 10-12 days to appear, but it looks lovely when fully underway, like this pot full of babies that are probably about a month old.

With my first trough of mesclun I learned that I needed to keep a close eye on which plants are bullying the others and grabbing all the space, and that meant I had to occasionally pull out an over-eager bully plant so the tiddlers lower down could get going.

After a few weeks of sorting out the squabbles between competing plant egos, they all settled down to make the most picturesque and delicious mixed leaf salads. A mature pot of mesclun is so photogenic, and if you just use a pair of scissors to give the pot a light haircut you’ll have a nice mixed greens salad ready to go, with replacement leaves growing back rapidly in the next few days. Regular (fortnightly) liquid feeds keep the production humming along.

The alternative to mesclun, and also worth growing, is simply to grow several different lettuce varieties in the one pot. Though nice to look at and easier to manage, what a mixed lettuce salad lacks is a bit of that tasty pepper and spice in the leafy mix that you get with mesclun.

Managing the competition

The one trick to remember with my ‘scatter and cover’ method is that it's likely that you will have sown too many seeds, so you will at some stage (say, in the third or fourth week after sowing) have to play at being Charles Darwin and pull out several weaker plants so there is enough room for the healthy ones to grow on. Don't be squeamish, just imagine you are the David Attenborough of salad greens, observing that only the strong survive while you watch on, fascinated.

Breaking news ...

I am also growing basil from seed, just because I don’t want to visit garden centres to buy seedlings, not because basil doesn’t grow well from seedlings. 

All the seeds came up beautifully, they looked as cute as fat babies, but a few nights back the slugs ate everything. It was my fault — I had sat the basil seedling pot up on top of the soil under a potted lime tree, so it got nice dappled shade on a warm day, and I forgot to move it back to a safer space that evening. I found a bunch of slugs living under the rim of the lime tree pot, sneaky slimy seedling munchers ...

There was nothing left, just pathetic little white stumps where leaflets used to be. Such is life, and gardening, so start again …

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Has it been that long?


Hi everyone, how have you all been keeping? It has been a while since I last posted anything here at Garden Amateur ... *checks* ... has it been that long? Really? Just a few months short of two years? How time rushes forward slowly sometimes.

The reason I'm back here for at least an update post is that one of my readers, Jenny, attended an art class run by my darling girl, Pammy, and Jenny asked what was happening to my gardening blog.

I've wondered the exact same thing myself sometimes. All I ever intended to do when I wrote my last posting at the end of 2018 was to take a break, a sabbatical, and get back into garden blogging again "one of these days", as the saying goes. And here we are, with me starting up blogging again due to popular demand of one. Thank you Jenny.

Well, the short version is that all is well with Pammy and me. Both of us are healthy (which has risen in importance in 2020 in particular) and both happily occupied in a variety of different ways.

Pam is particularly busy as an art teacher these days, doing all sorts of watercolour art classes in a range of venues. You can check her out at her website, but if you are in Sydney some (but not all) of her courses are listed on Eventbrite.

Me, I'm retired! Hooray! Which means more time for gardening of course, but also more time for reading and cooking, but lots of my time is also taken up as being Pammy's support person, as I can drive a car and she doesn't. So we work as a team, which is what we've been doing for the last 30 years anyway. The teamwork never stops, but the projects are always changing.

"But what's happening in the garden?" you ask, as, after all, this is a gardening blog and not a Christmas-time catch-up letter sent out to all and sundry, whether they're interested or not.

The garden, like us, is happy. Right now it's the beginning of springtime, so it's time for a few photos with captions of random gardeny things that have either happened in the last two years, or are happening now.

All the garden favourites have flowered right on schedule, such as this
blue Louisiana iris, which has just started to bloom this week.

However, I am still impatiently waiting for the white Louisiana iris
to pop out. It always does its thing a week or two after the blues begin.

Last year (2019) I tried sweet peas for a change, and the results
were lovely. I've planted even more this year, and they are just
starting to bloom, but won't be in full bloom for another month.

Last year's Shirley poppies were all razzle dazzle, but for no
good reason I never got around to sowing their seed this year.
Never mind, there's always next year (I hope).

I was very pleased with my purple cauliflower. The seeds were
given to me by a wonderful gardener, Kerryn Burgess, who I met while visiting
friends Amanda and Mike in Kyneton in 2018. I'm a keen follower of Kerryn's
amazing Instagram feed at @kerryn.burgess where she is a virtuoso of all
the gardening arts. Superb espaliers, wondrous orchard and much more ...

Our succulent patch continues in its own quirky way, with oddball
dazzlers such as this stapelia bloom. But, to tell the truth, the supposedly
easy-care succulent area is a lot of work, primarily because of onion
weed and a rotten, fast-growing grass that can take over in no time. 
The succulents themselves need little attention, but the weeding!

I've just realised that this 'update' posting could turn into a marathon if I'm not careful, so I'll finish off here with a final trio of photos that summarise what I have mostly been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I've been growing lots and lots of things from seed. 

It's slow, it gets easier the more you pick up the skills, and as I have oodles of time on my hands, raising plants from seed is a perfect garden project. I can guarantee you no instant gratification whatsoever with seeds. You have to learn to be patient, and savour the very real pleasure on those mornings when you first discover that your latest sowing of seeds has produced babies.  

This is our second pot of seed-grown coriander this cool season.
We ate the first lot, mostly in curries and stir-fries.

The chives are belting along, just a week or two away from ending up
in their favourite dish, Sunday morning scrambled eggs.

Baby spinach and yet more lettuce. The spinach is great in sandwiches.

So that's your update for now. Once I get my act together with photos, I'll fire up the Blogo-Matic 3000 ideas generator and will post something on seed sowing soon. 

See you then.