Saturday, February 23, 2008

Carol doesn't have HERBS? An Easy Top Ten

Shockwaves are rippling through the garden blogosphere: Carol at May Dreams Gardens has confessed that she doesn't grow many herbs and doesn't use them in cooking much.

Herbs, to me, are comfort gardening. Even when my peas have mysteriously disappeared, the tomatoes are full of fruit fly and the cabbages holed by caterpillars, I can console myself that at least something of tonight's dinner came from our garden, even if it's only the chives in the salad!

As a service to Carol and those who are new to herb gardening, I've put together a Top Ten List of annual and perennial herbs that are reasonably easy to grow and very useful in cooking. Herbs are usually native to warm, dry places with stony, poor soils. As a general rule, they prefer a sunny spot with well-drained soil and no additional fertiliser. Most are good pot subjects, and they are beautiful to look at, touch and smell, so keep them where visitors have a chance to enjoy them: close to your back door, or on your patio. You'll be more likely to use them, too.
  1. Parsley. I prefer Italian flat-leaf, for its more robust flavour and happy habit of self-sowing. The most I do is strew seeds around. I have raised it in pots occasionally. It is biennial: in its second year it will form an edible root (in loam), flower and set seed.
  2. Dill. A frail and short-lived annual in my heavy soil, but I keep strewing seeds about hopefully most of the year. Dill is the quintessential scent of summer. I love it in cucumber salad, or with fish, and in soups.
  3. Chives. That lovely polite mild onion taste, great for egg dishes, salads and wherever an ordinary onion would be Too Much. In autumn, give the clump a haircut and divide it.
  4. Common mint. Mine comes wandering in from next door. I only use it for mint sauce with roast lamb, but my Lebanese neighbours put it in rice-stuffed vine leaves, and probably tzatziki and tabbouli as well. Drop crushed leaves and some lemon slices into a jug of iced water on hot days. I've never had luck with mint in pots -- it is invariably skeletonised by some bug or other -- but unrestrained mint can be a real nuisance, especially in a damp spot. YOu have been warned...
  5. Thyme. Delicious in beef stews. So pretty, too, with its tiny leaves and flowers. There is a large family of thymes, all lovely to look at. A mixed bed of thymes would be delightful, but it won't happen here! My most recent thyme plant has just turned up its toes as we've had plenty of summer rain: exactly what a Mediterranean herb dislikes.
  6. Basil. Essential with tomato salads and sauces, and for pesto. This annual needs protection from snails when young and a regular supply of water. I grow it in the vegie patch.
  7. Rosemary. Wonderful with lamb, though it should be used carefully, as too much gives food a resinous taste. This elegant shrub responds well to clipping and is great as a low hedge. We wear a sprig of rosemary 'for remembrance' on Anzac Day. I have three cultivars: the common one, a pink-flowered one, and a dark-blue-flowered type with a lax habit, possibly Benenden Blue. This last was from an elderly lady in a nearby street. The lady, her house and her garden are gone now; I am so glad I asked her for cuttings!
  8. Oregano. Beloved of all Greek Australians; I use it with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic to dress Greek salad. Unsurprisingly, it also enhances lamb. Easy to grow but tends to become leggy; I need to pinch it more often to keep it neat.
  9. Sage. The well-known stuffing herb for poultry and pork dishes. Use it sparingly, as it's strong-flavoured. Large grey-green leaves with pretty blue flower-spikes. It can struggle here in wet weather, being another Mediterranean herb.
  10. Lemon grass. Important if you like South-East Asian food -- and I do! I use it in stir-fries with ginger and chilli, mainly, and am continuing to plant it around my vegie patch in an effort to keep the kikuyu grass out. Being a tropical grass, it doesn't mind the damper parts of the garden. Easy to divide and replant in autumn -- just wear gloves, as the leaves can be sharp.
Happy herbal gardening!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ghastly Moments in Gardening II and III

Alas, I have had two Ghastly Moments in the past week. Someone tell me that I'm not the only one that has them!

Ghastly Moment II

Penny the chook knows that food comes from our house. She is also quite happy to walk in and ask for it. And our back door flies open easily.

The rest of us were in various part of the house, and the first we heard was the sound of a chicken fluttering. When we came into the kitchen, there was Penny at the table, as if she'd come for dinner! So of course I caught her to take her out. Now the usual way you hold a chook is around the body, holding the wings so they don't flap. I thought I had a good grip on her as I swung past the table to take her out, but then I thought I saw something moving on her feathers. I turned her sideways to get a better look and she got a wing free.

Flap--snap. Her wing hit my arm at an odd angle, and the top bone shattered. I feel sick just remembering the noise.

On the bright side, she's holding it fairly normally, and the vet thinks that she will be OK although she probably won't be able to fly properly. That isn't a huge problem for a back yard chook; flying means "goes over fences and meets a dog" in suburbia.

Ghastly Moment III

It was a large family, but a happy one. The children looked clean and well-fed, though the parents were absent when we looked into their house. The house was much tidier than mine: not a speck of dirt to be seen. Those sweet little children played with each other happily as we watched. And I realised I had to kill them.

I thought drowning was the kindest method as it's quick. They were climbing over each other's plump little bodies one minute, and next they were trying vainly to climb out of the water --- a horrid symmetry. It took five minutes at most. I still feel guilty, ending the lives of a dozen sweet babies. But what else can you do when you find a rat's nest?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mid-February Vegie Guilds

Today I moved the chooks back into their dome on the vegie patch. They will be in the one place for a couple of weeks, eating insects and plants, scratching up weeds, and manuring and turning over the soil. This is permaculture in action: with minimal use of (my) energy, but good use of a biological resource, the various natural behaviours of the chooks lead to improvement in my vegie patch.

I'll use glyphosate on any remaining grass after that, before I plant. I have tried to plant straight after moving the dome, but the result wasn't good!

In my Guild 1 spot, of the seeds I sowed a fortnight ago I can now see:
  • a few French beans
  • purple carrots
  • dill
  • Florence fennel
  • 5 plants dwarf snow peas
  • a row of radish "French Breakfast"

The Welsh onions and silverbeet have not come up. They might be slow germinators, but I think I will put them in punnets in future. I suspect the other peas and beans have probably rotted; we've had 170mm since I planted those seeds! I will plant some more in the gaps tomorrow.

My punnets have done quite well. The only seedlings not up are the lettuces -- and I was trying to use up old seed.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Where in the Gardening World is Chookie?

Bloomingwriter asked,
Tell your readers a bit about your hometown, your state, province…something that really tells us where you are in the world. What’s really special about your community? Pretend you’re trying to entice visitors to the region, and remember—what might be obvious to you isn’t necessarily obvious to even the blogger in the community next door.
I've already dealt with this question a bit here, in terms of geography and climate.

My part of Sydney is not the part that international tourists tend to visit a lot, though I suppose some of them come out to Sydney Olympic Park for sporting events. My municipality is mainly residential, with some light and a little heavy industry. It is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of Sydney--only a quarter of the 60,000 residents are native English speakers.

The municipality is bounded by Parramatta River on the north, and the main Sydney Water Supply Line on the south. At the eastern end is Rookwood Cemetery, and to the west is Duck River and its parklands. I live up the Rookwood end.

Few probably visit Rookwood Cemetery, but perhaps more should. It is beautiful -- one of the largest cemeteries in the world, full of history and of rare plants. Rookwood and Sydney Olympic Park not only provide local residents with open space: they keep the air clean, no mean feat considering the number of people who pass through the area to work each day. I used to work in the grittiest part of Sydney and it was a pleasure to breathe clean(er) air when I alighted from the train at home. I love Rookwood now, in late summer. The grasses grow tall around the leaning sandstone headstones, creating romantic pictures under the gum trees.

Rookwood is home to the rare Acacia pubescens, the Downy Wattle. It is a small pretty shrub a couple of metres in height, with blue-green ferny leaves and scented wattle-balls in spring. An ideal garden plant, one would think, but apparently it is extraordinarily difficult to propagate. Root cuttings are the most reliable, and you can't take too many of those for fear of damage to the parent plant. One of my ambitions is to grow it.

Sydney Olympic Park is home to some of our rarest plant communities and an astonishing variety of animals. Further details (including some pics) here. They hold a series of free outdoor concerts each February. We're planning to go to the Sydney Symphony one shortly.

Come over for a cuppa some time...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Autumn Already?

I notice that some Northern Hemisphere posters are mentioning unusually mild temperatures for late winter: Bliss and Ewa in the Garden, for example. We too are having mild temperatures. Generally, February is an inferno. We experience temperatures over 35 C for about five days, with a day or two reaching 40 C or more. Some years we get two heatwaves, not one. Then the weather breaks, we receive some welcome rain, and when it clears, we find ourselves in autumn.

Well, our rain seems to have come early. After a deluge in December and a pretty typical humid January, it rained for the first ten days of February instead of getting hotter. I suppose the amount of water in the soil has caused the caused the cool temperatures these last few fine days. Yesterday, it was only 14 C at 7am, and it smelt like autumn. (What does autumn smell like elsewhere? Here it is cool dewy mornings, the smell of damp earth, and green things growing.)

The highest temperature forecast this week is 27 C. I have seen a pink tibouchina coming into flower. If I'm lucky, we'll have a long, long autumn. It's my favourite season -- planting time.

A giant golden orb weaver is spinning her web at our front porch. She's probably 5 cm across when she's sitting comfortably and waiting for her dinner. She's not very elegant, with her plumpness and her rather stumpy legs, and she is too hairy for human ideals of feminine beauty, but she is a great benefactor. We've barely been troubled by mosquitoes inside the house this year, though I hear they are in great numbers due to the rain. If our spider is at work, it must be bed-time. Goodnight!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Recent Harvests, for Staycalm

Staycalm asked "What's producing up there at the moment? " on February 2.

I think my vegies have been as hit-and-miss as yours have! My suspicion is that the shift to La Nina in November, when summer plantings were adjusting to the previous El Nino conditions, might have caused poor growth.

  • The French Beans: 'Stringless Dwarf' and 'Italian Romano'.
  • 'Spacemaster' cucumbers and the 'Golden Bantam' Corn above it
  • Jalapeno chillies
  • self-sown oakleaf lettuces
  • Welsh onions
  • sorrel (pity the culinary uses are a bit limited)
  • perilla
  • Lemons. Millions of 'em.
  • The tomatoes. Poor plants and yields, and my Tommy Toes (if that's what they are) don't taste too good. The second they ripen, they rot.
  • The 'Mini White' cucumbers -- nice, but we've only had two so far.
  • Chervil from seed. Can't see any!
  • The quinces have all fallen off the tree.
  • I think the chooks ate the strawberries.
Verdict Still Out
  • A floriferous Scarlet Runner bean has reappeared.
  • The eggplants have started to flower.
  • Self-sown pumpkins -- they're probably Up To Something!
  • I pulled out the early squashes but am waiting for later ones.
P.S. My brassica seeds are up: pak choy, kale and cabbage in the punnets, and the radishes in the garden.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Hue -- and Cry!

This month's Garden Bloggers' Design Workshop, hosted by Gardening Gone Wild, is about Colour in the Garden. That's the Hue. The Cry part is from me. Where can I go to learn about and apply this stuff?

I remember the colour wheel from Year 7 Art. You use the three primaries to make the three secondaries. Except that it didn't work properly. A dob of red and a dob of yellow made a weird red, not orange; you get orange from a lot of yellow and very little red. That is, it didn't tell you anything about how to make the colours you actually wanted. The colour wheel seemed to be one of those odd little things you were supposed to learn, but which never connected to anything.

I was looking up information about colour schemes a few weeks ago on the Web. Simple descriptions of the most commonly-used schemes are here. But this is where my understanding stops, and my questions begin. First one: Where do black, grey, white and brown fit in?

I can't seem to relate colour theory to the world I live in. Take my Plectranthus argentatus, for example. Is it grey, or green? What about the rhubarb-pink flower-stems?

Steve Silk has given us a beautiful picture and a great explanation of what is going on in it. Yet I am still not sure what to think. Is it still complementary when the yellow is actually a yellow-green, and the purple a very clear pinkish-purple? Are you supposed to reduce whatever lovely colour you have to the nearest primary or secondary to work out a colour scheme? I have a funny feeling that an underplanting of sulphur-yellow marigolds wouldn't have the same effect as the plants used in the picture. How does knowing complementary colours help with plant selection, then?

And why is it counted as a complementary scheme when another colour, green, actually fills most of the picture? Doesn't green count?

Don't mind my whingeing too much. Instead, just look at all those fantastic photos in blog posts, like this one at Digging. It's a wonderful topic, even if I Don't Know How They Do It!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Starting Afresh with Vegie Guilds

Off and on, I keep trying to plant vegetables in guilds as recommended in Linda Woodrow's The Permaculture Home Garden. At some point, I'll review this book: it is actually practicable for urban permies in the temperate zone. Just to explain briefly: a guild is a planned mixture of plants in a single garden bed, organised so that harvest occurs within three months. The advantages include lower losses from pests and diseases, and continuous harvest of a variety of vegetables. Woodrow's system forms six guilds into a sophisticated "mandala", including use of a chook dome to lower pest numbers and fertilise, weed and till the soil.

Because I'm a SHE, my guild system usually amounts to trying to avoid planting the same kinds of vegies right next to each other (apart from sweet corn, which needs to be planted in groups for pollination, and which I underplant with cucumbers). It works reasonably well, except that I sometimes find that it's time for the chook dome to go on an area before the later crops have finished. Also, I'm not too good at having something ready to fill in spaces as they arise, and that means weeds elbow their way in until the chooks get them.

Time to give it another go. With this blog providing some structure, perhaps I'll be able to manage a bit better. So here is my planting list for the first fortnight in February:

Direct (done last Saturday):
10 French beans
1m row purple carrots
1m row Florence fennel
Parsnips (not by me; I just wait to see where they come up!)
1m row dwarf snow peas (I think it's too early, really, but have given it a go)
Radishes "French Breakfast"
3 silver beet "Five Colours"
1m row Welsh onions

In punnets, for later guilds (seeds planted yesterday):
5 beetroot (mixed heirlooms)
3 broccoli "Romanesco" (which, admittedly, I've never had any luck with)
3 cabbage "Mini"
3 kale "Tuscan Black"
1m row leeks "Jaune de Poitou" (these are whopper leeks that need ages to grow)
10 lettuce, plain Cos and "Rouge d'Hiver"
10 pak choy

Oops. I should also have had a few seedlings ready to go in with the seeds, but I hadn't many -- a punnet of leeks, and some crook tomatoes -- but I popped them in too.

Later in the evening, the rain started again. It has rained all day today and everything is drenched, to the point that I now worry my freshly-planted seeds might fall prey to damping-off disease!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Mishap -- To Me!

I was driving home from work on Tuesday when I was involved in an accident. I stopped at a roundabout, but unfortunately, the woman behind me didn't. There was a nasty noise from the boot, I said "Whoo!" as the air rushed out of my lungs, and then I sat up to find that I was out at least half a car-length into the roundabout. I suspect that she either didn't hit the brake at all or she hit the accelerator instead -- none of the cars with right of way had moved, so they must have seen it coming.

I am not seriously injured. I have sore neck and back muscles and am having physiotherapy, but as my head didn't snap back, I have escaped true whiplash. Nonetheless, a plethora of doctor's and physiotherapist's appointments has cut heavily into my gardening time this week, as has the increased need for rest and the absence of the family car.

It's been a bit hot to garden much this week, anyway. Our tops have been around 30-32 C but the humidity has been at the streaming-with-perspiration level; most unpleasant. After a huge thunderstorm on Thursday evening, it's been a lot cooler and cloudier. I've now hit the stage where I can think about gardening again, but I will have to be careful not to overdo it as my muscles return to normal.

I hope that you've had a better week than I've had!