Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Leftovers

OK, so here is a Christmas post for gardeners.

Only a very few flowers are left on my NSW Christmas Bush, so I had no Christmas Bush for His Adorning this year. The shrub is still fairly small and they tend to flower a bit erratically until they are older.

In Australia, you'll find a raft of Christmas plants. Maybe I'll try growing Christmas Bells some time.

But we don't stop there; in Sydney, we have Christmas Beetles! This one turned up the week before Christmas. It is about 3cm long, though they do grow bigger. Here it is on the Geek's hand.

We also spotted (geddit?) this 1.5-cm beetle on the Babingtonia virgata, which was a Baeckea virgata when I bought it -- or was it a Baeckia virgata? Even the Australian National Botanical Gardens can't keep it straight; no wonder they renamed the species! I had better mention that this is one of my favourite plants and that the beetle was collecting nectar from the little honey-scented flowers.

Of course our Christmas lunch isn't quite so light, and we tend to feel like this...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas to All!

May your understanding of Jesus Christ be deepened this Christmas...

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love's sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love's sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love's sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love's sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

Frank Houghton (1894-1972)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Might I have a bit of earth?" -- Kids in the Garden

This month's Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop is about helping kids enjoy the garden. So here is a gardener's dozen of dos and don'ts.
  1. Children are less interested in lawn than you think. While a big lawn can be handy for ball games, it often becomes too hot to use in summer, and life is not all ball games; allow for more imaginative play. A large lawn is intimidating for littlies, and they will avoid it.
  2. Don't guard your garden. Avoid planting expensive rare plants in the first place. The kids are bound to run over them. Find forgiving plants instead. Besides, with kids, you don't have time to cosset choice specimens any more.
  3. Avoid spiky plants in the wrong places. We have a kaffir lime growing in a great spot... for a kaffir lime. Unfortunately, it's on the edge of our lawn. While nobody has fallen into the plant yet, it has punctured any number of soccer balls.
  4. Children want places to hide in -- not necessarily for hide-and-seek, but for the secret moon base, the robbers' den, or whatever it is today. Have a deep shrubbery or other secluded place for the secret life of children.
  5. Fit in a place to dig -- not to garden in, but to dig for archaeological relics, find China, or to form a quarry for the trucks to play in.
  6. Have a firm area to play handball or ride the trike.
  7. Grow a tree to climb.
  8. Make sure there is shade available during summer time.
  9. Provide a small garden bed for each child for their very own, and encourage plantings of hardy, fast growers (sunflowers, radishes, beans, peas).
  10. Start children off planting with large seeds rather than small seeds or seedlings; they are easier to handle. In my area, that would include French beans, sunflowers, nasturtiums, sweet corn, most cucurbits and most bulb plants. Provide older children with seedlings in plugs rather than punnets.
  11. Point out the local animal life to your children, and explain what they are doing. My children love to have St. Andrew's Cross spiders or cicadas or praying mantises pointed out to them. Keep an eye out for larger wildlife too, such as birds, blue-tongue lizards, frogs or possums. Consider ways to provide habitat for them: nesting boxes, a pond, hollow logs, bird feeders and bird-baths.
  12. Assume children will pick the strawberries, fresh peas and cherry tomatoes. Encourage them by showing them the right way to pick crops (using the "elbow" on tomatoes, for example).
  13. Leave children to their own devices in the back yard as much as possible.

Perhaps I should mention that my Mum gave me a garden sign for my birthday last week: "Beware feral children."

Monday, December 8, 2008

On Contrast

I have just been reading Joy Larkcom's wonderful book, Creative Vegetable Gardening*. In fact, I've read it once, browsed it once, and plan to read it again before I return it to my library. I won't review it here, but I will tell you that it is the kind of gardening book that makes you want to garden. And what greater recommendation could there be?

As you can guess from the title, the book is about creating potagers. I have never been particularly enamoured of potagers, feeling that they were pretentious, and a waste of garden space with all that box hedging, but Joy Larkcom covers not only the formal potager but the semiformal and informal types. The photographs are beautiful, and really do illustrate the text -- which shouldn't surprise me, but it does. I have grown used to photos that are tangential to the text.

Joy Larkcom says that there are two planting strategies for potagers. The first is the patterned type, involving geometric plantings like lines or blocks of identical plants. It is possible to contrast colours as well, such as red and green lettuces of the same variety. Of course that is the approach usually taken with the formal kind of potager, such as at Chateau Villandry.

The second approach is more a "landscape" approach: to plant specific focal points and have a tapestry effect around them, made up of various colours and textures. As my garden has a permaculture basis and is semiformal rather than formal, this approach suits me better. We need reminders from time to time that we can add arches, arbours, bird-baths and pots to our gardens, and that while star pickets and netting support climbing peas, there are other, more attractive ways to do it.

Somehow, I've been finding my vegetable patch lacks soul this year. The plants are going well this season, because of the rain we've had, yet I've been dissatisfied. Both the health and the chaos of my vegetable garden are visible in the photo above. I'm happy the soil is covered, happy about the growth of the plants, but it's a bit dull to look at, and this book explains how I can improve things.

One great help is the enlightening list of different textures.
Joy Larkcom lists the following:
Crepey, eg Savoy cabbage
Crinkly, eg curly parsley
Feathery, eg asparagus
Glossy, eg silverbeet
Mealy, eg borage

I am inclined to add Smooth, to cover plants like the onion family, or peas. The leaves aren't glossy, but they don't really fit any other categories. In the spirit of illustrative photos, here are some delicate white celery flowers contrasting with rugged blue Tuscan kale. I don't find this a jarring contrast at all.

What makes some contrasts annoying and others alluring, anyway? The celery differs in colour and texture, though not so much in habit or height. Somehow this contrast brings out the delicacy of the flower. So why don't the contrasting textures work in the top photo? I'm still figuring it out.

The other contrast, implied in the text, is of habit. Beetroot, parsnip and non-hearting lettuces all have the same general shape. Hearting lettuces and cabbages have that rounded look, while the sweet corn, sunflowers and onions are all strongly vertical. I am sure I can do more with habit, texture and colour than I have been.

The only omission from the text is in how to deal with plants that need staking, like tomatoes and the larger eggplants -- unless you buy those expensive twirly metal stakes. However, I think I have found a solution to unattractive stakes at Chloe's Garden!

* Larkcom, Joy (2004). Creative Vegetable Gardening (rev.ed.). Mitchell Beazley, London.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Jeepers Creepers...

We have some peepers!

We tend to call them the eep-eeps, and we've had them about two weeks. Annie is a White Leghorn and Clarabel is an Australorp. We also also bought Henrietta, a Rhode Island Red, but we found her dead in the coop one morning last week, after a few cold days. There are now two pyramids under the lemon tree.

The supplier is a chook breeder at Luddenham, so it's not as long a trip as I was imagining. I have right of return if the pullets turn out to be cockerels.

Penny has been rather confused about the little ones, as they are too young to be allowed to free-range without supervision. Sometimes she calls to them, and sometimes tries to peck them. I am not too worried about this: she has been debeaked, but these little ones haven't, so they'll soon be able to stand up for themselves.

Speaking of Penny: she still has gurgly lungs, which you can hear if you put an ear to her side. I gave her chlortetracycline in her water for about ten days, and she does seem better. Her tail has approached upright, and she is eating a lot (she really likes the chick starter food!) and is more energetic. On the negative side, her vent is still dirty and, of course, she still gurgles. Here's hoping.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Gardener Goes Away (7): Ingleden Park and Beyond

On our way home from Mildura, we stayed at another farm: Ingleden Park, just outside Griffith. When we reached it, the sun was low.

These pansies welcomed us to our cottage.

The farm is run by Gerardine and Trevor Hill, who kindly took us over it that evening. Water shortages and fluctuating weather have led the Hills to diversify. They run Border-Leicester Merino crosses and South African Meat Merinos, dual-purpose animals that produce wool and are later sold for meat. The Hills also grow a range of cereal crops and canola. They have been laser-grading the farm to improve water management, and explained how this is done and how useful it is. Laser-graded fields can be built to precise dimensions and allow beautifully even irrigation, minimising water use. The old-style farm dams have been filled in; the Hills have installed water tanks which reduce evaporation to zero and ensure the animals' water is always clean.

I had the distinct impression that some ignorant person had told them that it was Really Wrong to grow rice! It turns out that rice gives a substantially better return (figured in dollars per megalitre) than wheat, though wheat uses rather less water. However, when a rice crop is followed by wheat, the residual soil moisture from the rice lowers the water cost of the wheat substantially. Trevor told us of the difficulties of growing rice: cold weather when the rice is flowering induces "flat head", ie, poor fertilisation and therefore heads with no grain inside. And even in good conditions, there is a 30% flat head rate anyway! I was surprised the figure was so high.

The Hills are also keen to preserve the native flora on their farm. They are caretakers of an ancient, endangered Rosewood Tree, a species which seems impossible to propagate from seed (I think it is Alectryon oleifolius; a number of Australian species are called rosewoods). They are planning to apply again for a biosequestration grant for their rocky hill, and are planting more marginal land with indigenous plants. The mob of kangaroos which frequent the hill (and weren't our boys thrilled to see them!) enjoy the extra cover.

This handsome fellow is Jackman, the Murray Grey bull. The other handsome fellows belong to me.

The cottage gardens are full of treasures to admire.

Gerardine has an eye for restful colour combinations, apparent in the interior decorating as well as the cottage gardens. The pots and the chair pick up the different colours on the two New Zealand flax:

An artistic hand has softened the outlines of this shed.

We were fortunate enough to see these sheep being yarded the next morning. They were starting their journey to the supermarket...

We were sorry to leave Ingleden Park, but we were heading for Canberra and home. On our way we stopped to admire Grong Grong station and the silos to the east.

Looking westward you can see a lovely purple haze. This beautiful colour is a common sight in western NSW but unfortunately it is our worst pasture weed, Paterson's Curse, which has no natural predators here. European readers may know this plant as Purple Bugloss (Echium plantagineum). The Hills told us that CSIRO has introduced a beetle that is having a noticeable effect in their area. When the weed isn't controlled, it forms a dense monoculture, as you can see below.

We had a quick look at Junee Station, and I loved this nearby cottage, despite its privet hedge. Another weed!

This is where my digital photos end. There are a few more from our friends' garden in Canberra, but I'm waiting for them to be developed. Time to return to Chookie's Back Yard!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Gardener Goes Away (6): The Australian Inland Botanic Gardens

For some reason, my husband and children didn't feel inclined to join me in my tour of the Australian Inland Botanic Gardens, because they preferred the prospect of the Snakes'n'Ladders fun-park, the weirdos! So I was able to be a serious plant geek all by myself. There was only one problem. I discovered too late (that is, when the car had disappeared from sight) that the cafe was not open -- it doesn't seem to have fixed hours. The signs for "Grinders coffee" and "Raisin toast" taunted my rumbling tummy. And it was hot. And the bore water in the taps isn't potable: there is a single rainwater tank up by the cafe. By chance I happened to have a child's water bottle tucked into my bag, otherwise my afternoon would have been quite unpleasant. Lacking physical sustenance, I nonetheless had a botanical feast...

The first plant I noticed was this Halgania andromedifolia, with thumbnail-sized stars on a 1m shrub.

All hakeas have interesting seed-pods. I caught this Needlewood (Hakea leucoptera) with the seed still attached.

This pretty flower is from an Emu-bush (Eremophila). They all have the same structure, and the flowers are 3-5cm long, depending on species. They are becoming more popular in gardens because they flower well.

A look inside the Spotted Fuchsia, E maculata.

This would have to be my favourite, the Pearl Blue-Bush (Maireana sedifolia). It is a very small shrub to 30cm. I can imagine it used as a border or very low hedge in dry areas, in place of that boring box.

Imagine my joy when I discovered its dainty flower on another plant!

I was rather startled to find a formal rose garden, but it turns out there is a separate section for exotic plants that can cope with the dryland climate. I don't particularly admire this rose, but I love bees.

I did, however, admire the hoop-and-post arrangement for the collection of climbing roses. Most roses were only just coming into flower; this is 'Maria Callas'.

This showy flower is an Alyogyne huegelii alba, I think. A tall but leggy shrub, good at the back of a garden bed. The flowers only last a day, but they keep coming.

Couldn't find a tag on this presumed Rice-flower from WA. The 30cm Pimelea was almost covered in hot-pink blooms. To be truthful, they clashed with the red soil.

Lastly, another plant I fell in love with while walking in Mildura. The Willow-leafed Wattle, Acacia iteaphylla, has wonderful foliage and striking seed-pods, which give the impression of a silvery cascade. Here it has been underplanted with Convolvulus cneorum.

While the garden is still in development, it is already a wonderful resource if you are interested in the flora of this part of Australia. Just remember to carry your own supplies!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Gardener Goes Away (5)

We had a great time in Mildura, visiting relatives. All the Geek's relatives are lovely people -- we've been truly blessed!

We took a drive up to Wentworth, to see the confluence of the Murray and Darling Rivers. The lighter-coloured water in the foreground is the Darling, which runs for 1390 km, draining southern Queensland and western NSW before it joins the Murray here. The 2575-km-long Murray River arises in the Australian Alps. It and its tributaries drain much of NSW.

Magnificent colours on the bole of a River Red Gum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, 3m across. This is the dominant species along inland waterways.

We took a trip on the PS Melbourne, and spotted these swallow-nests under a river-cliff. I love the colour-contrasts.

Walking in Mildura is a great way to see beautiful gardens and street trees. This bottle-brush is just huge, and a great climbing tree too, our boys told us. The canopy is about 8m across and the tree is at least that height. I can't tell you exactly what it is, but I assume it is a type of Callistemon viminalis.

Around the corner is this extraordinary Queensland Bottle Tree, Brachychiton rupestris. Quite a number of these trees were planted in Mildura in earlier times, but not all have flourished like this one.

A close-up of the distinctive trunk:

But we also discovered a terrible secret lurking in a quiet back street...

You saw it here first: in the next series, Dr Who will have to save Australia from Daleks! Stone the crows!

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Gardener Goes Away (4)

A few more photos of the Corynnia Station garden, showing Julie Armstrong's preferred palette:

The art of the stroll garden--giving a sense of different areas to explore:

In contrast, Bruce's Nissen hut-cum-workshop has the rugged charm of a piece of masculine history.

I'd recommend Corynnia Station to anyone, especially if you like gardening and being able to see the stars at night. The price alone is competitive with a motel, but it's far more enjoyable. I wished we could stay longer, but all too soon we had to farewell Wal the dog and all his family. Btu Wal was too busy to say goodbye...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Gardener Goes Away (3): The Garden at Corynnia Station

The garden at Corynnia Station is mainly the work of Julie Armstrong. When she and her husband Bruce moved to the property, the 'home paddock' was a soul-destroying, dusty mess of superannuated equipment. Only a stand of pines and some peppercorn trees had withstood the neglect of the previous tenants. Now, there is a peaceful, green stroll garden that provides a pleasant backdrop to the 1940s farmhouse, and a contrast to the red soil and heat of the paddocks.

Tough ground covers add interest to the root zone of the established trees seen at right in the photo above. Euphorbia wulfenii at the back, with low-growing Wormwood and Forget-Me-Nots in front:

A Native Frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum) in full bloom both tones with the citrus and draws us beyond the household orchard:

I kept stopping to look at the beauties of individual plants. (Can anyone identify this one for me?)

Julie's eye for colour extends to the house as well. Now go back to the top photo and look at it more carefully...

At the front of the house, Julie has built this formal Round Garden. The terracotta statue set amid its green garden is a softer, gentler evocation of the red soil that surrounds the whole.

More photos of the garden may be seen at Outback Beds' page about Corynnia Station.