Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is It a Wedding?

Well, they're veiled in white...
And blushing...

Unfortunately, the only romantic thing is that these are my tomatoes, and they're starting to ripen!

Those white 'veils' are fruit-fly exclusion bags. I thought I saw a fruit-fly and acted about a week before Christmas to cover the fruit.

Queensland Fruit Fly is a serious pest for both commercial fruit growers and home gardeners. In Sydney, the fly is active after Christmas -- it likes the warm, humid conditions. It lays its eggs in a whole range of garden fruits, but particularly likes stone fruit, and tomatoes and capsicums. QFF doesn't attack cucurbits, but a bad infestation will see them in almost everything else. Home gardeners normally see them in tomatoes, though cherry tomatoes are rarely affected.

I should mention that the tiny flies commonly seen hovering over those grapes you forgot to eat, or in the less reputable fruit shops, are vinegar flies (Drosophila), not Queensland Fruit Fly.

The fly usually lays its eggs near the calyx, making the 'sting mark' less obvious (though in a bad infestation you will see sting marks everywhere!). Its maggots then eat the fruit from the inside. When they're ready to pupate, they will have eaten enough of the fruit's insides for it to fall to the ground. The maggots burrow into the soil to pupate before hatching out as adult flies (a bit smaller than a house-fly). In ideal conditions it takes about a month for a fly to go from egg to sexual maturity, and they lay eggs for weeks afterwards...

Thus everyone who has grown up with home-grown tomatoes here has also grown up with the sight and stench of rotting tomatoes, and the sound of cranky gardeners calling down curses upon Bactrocera tryoni.

How do we control it? Well, the most important thing is to practice good hygiene. Firstly, fruit trees should be looked after so they do not shelter fruit flies (there is a legal requirement that I strip my quince tree of fruit at the end of April to prevent fruit fly over-wintering in them). Make sure the tree is not too tall to check the fruit. Fallen or infected fruit should be either solarised or frozen. My Dad's preferred method was to add the fruit to his 44-gallon drum of compost tea!

To be truthful, the best control of fruit fly is through regular spraying of systemic insecticide. I'm a busy person with children, and I like the other minibeasts in my garden, so there are a host of reasons I don't want to spray. My contacts with other gardeners have led me to believe that baits and lures are not terribly effective, so I am going with barriers instead.

We have had dry summers for the last few years, which have reduced the numbers of QFF in Sydney. I am concerned that this year, as vegetable gardening has been booming in popularity, and there are many novice tomato growers around, we will see QFF in plague proportions.

Your Department of Agriculture or Primary Industries will have a fact sheet about Queensland Fruit Fly for your area. Please read it and follow its directions. Be especially careful to follow the local regulations if you are travelling into a fruit fly exclusion zone this summer.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Is it Obsessive...?

We had a bit of light rain on Christmas Day, enough to dampen the ground. But with a few days of rain and cool weather forecast, it was obviously the right time to plant my advanced vegetable seedlings. So there I was on Boxing Day morning, rain on my back, hurrying to get my plants into the ground. Pumpkin 'Potimarron' under the quince tree, then a few heirloom tomatoes, capsicums, shallots and lettuces into the main garden. I think I only reached 'obsessive gardener' status when the rain started to run off the tip of my nose.

What do you think?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

I've just discovered this carol, and it's botanical, so here it is.

And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
With best wishes to my friends in the blogosphere,


Saturday, December 19, 2009


I see it has been a month since I last posted. Not quite what I had planned!

Here is what's happened in that time:

  • I cured Lizzie of broodiness.
  • The iron deficiency on the tomato plant was resolved with some seaweed tea, as mentioned earlier.
  • Some of my tomatoes were holed by tomato worm.
  • My children suffered from a nasty vomiting bug.
  • My husband caught an evil summer cold and passed it on to me.
  • Australian politics has been quite entertaining.
  • We uncovered the evil lurking on the Internet. The boys keep singing Queen songs, despite the fact that neither of their parents particularly like Queen. It's all happened because the Twig likes watching domino videos, though why these always involve Queen tunes is unfathomable. I shall be writing to Stephen Conroy about this!
  • I had mysteriously bad germination of sweet corn and of beans.
  • The lemon cucumber and bean plants (the ones that came up) are in full production.
  • The chillies on the chilli plant look like small, half-deflated green balloons, and are quite hot.
  • There are borers in some of my older wattle trees. I will wait until autumn to cut them down.
  • I'm really hoping those yellow leaves on the 'Brandywine' tomatoes are caused by sunburn from our 40 degree day earlier this week.
  • I turned 40.
  • We've been preparing for Christmas!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gardening IS Political

Many of the garden bloggers I read have firm opinions about native plants, global warming, pesticides and genetically-modified organisms, which they express in their gardening and their blogging. But it's not every day that your favourite garden expert is arrested at a Gunn's pulp mill protest.

Onya Pete!

Apparently most of the people arrested were over 50 years of age. The police must have felt pretty silly. And it's an even worse look for Gunn's than usual.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Summer Vegies

The erratic heat and cold of September delayed my summer plantings by nearly a month, but now, there are four 'Brandywine' and four 'Principe Borghese' tomato plants growing happily in the vegie patch. They are just starting to put out flowers, with the 'Brandywine' buds looking decidedly larger than the usual tomato flower. Various fast-growing plants that I planted between the tomatoes, such as basil, pak choy and lettuces, have been badly chewed by snails. I think it's time to open the snail pub.

The first sowing of beans are about to flower; they were planted about three weeks ago next to the Brandywines, as you can see above. The second sowing will be up in a few days.

My cherry varieties,'Broad Ripple Yellow Currant' and 'Tommy Toe', are also in and flowering. But I have a little problem. Where do I put my other tomatoes, the mixed heirlooms?

A more serious problem is the mysterious white leaf that has appeared on one Brandywine:

It looks worryingly like iron deficiency, and I've given the plant some seaweed tea. There isn't much you can do for iron deficiency, I understand, as tomato plants don't like lime much. I might be driven to adding lime if the problem continues.

The boys were unimpressed to see me planting lots of squash seeds, but the seeds were in fact out of date. If I get any squash plants, that will be nice -- if not, that's fine. The boys have also planted some 'World's Largest' pumpkin seeds, so we'll have to see how they go -- they aren't up yet. They are segregated under the lemon tree. I'm hoping my 'Turk's Turban' pumpkins, under the quince, will produce as they are so beautiful. To my astonishment, I discovered that my rhubarb there has resprouted. I thought the chooks had scratched it out!

A single cucumber plant has survived to grow up a trellis and flower. I can see teeny-weeny cucumbers on it.

Now I just have to figure out where to put all the seedlings I'm nurturing: more silverbeet, some salad onions, leeks, mini capsicums, eggplant, and ground-cherries. It is annoying that so many summer crops are Solanaceae; it's inadvisable to plant them in the same place each year, but I really don't have much choice (except to expand the vegetable garden...).

Friday, November 6, 2009

There's Loving Plants, and There's Loving Plants...

We all know that it's OK to talk to your plants. Prince Charles does it, and he's all right (apart from his taste in women). It's OK to fuss over plants, think about them, and generally behave like they are your children. But how many people sing a song to their favourite plant?

Only in opera...

Only Handel's opera-comedy-of-manners Serse.

Translation below. Enjoy Andreas Scholl's wonderful voice, especially that first note.

Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
Let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
Nor may you be profaned by blowing winds.

Never was made
the shade of a plant,
dear and loving,
or more gentle.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Awakening of Less Cheerful Feelings on Arrival Home

Such pretty flowers. They start as cerise buds, turn to purple flowers and fade to blue.

The problem is that it's Paterson's Curse, one of the worst pasture weeds west of the ranges! So what on earth is it doing in my back yard? My guess is that it came with the chook feed.

The native blue-banded bee likes the flowers, as did another smaller bee that moved too fast for me to photograph. Beekeepers refer to the plant as Salvation Jane, since it provides forage for bees during drought and produces a delicious honey.

This plant was only 30cm high (they grow to about 120cm), but the tap root was already 1cm thick when the Geek pulled it out on Saturday. We hope it will not resprout. I've never seen Paterson's Curse in Sydney -- it's an echium, and prefers a Mediterranean climate. There is a distant view of Paterson's Curse in a previous post.

I hadn't found a reason to cook this lovely beetroot before we left, but just had to pull it on the weekend as it was getting a bit too big. That's a four-cup teapot behind for scale. Still haven't worked out what to do with the beetroot!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country

We spent last weekend at a family reunion in the small NSW town of Carcoar. If you are fond of hills dotted with sheep and cattle, and you like National Trust listed places, you will love Carcoar; I certainly did.

When my husband's distant relative moved to Carcoar, it was the second-largest town west of the Blue Mountains, second to Bathurst. Its other claim to fame is that it was the first place in Australia where the daylight robbery of a bank* took place, perpetrated by none other than Bold Ben Hall.

Of course, because we are all nerds, we were very keen to see the Blayney wind farm. There is a viewing platform near Carcoar Dam, but it faces east, so morning photographs are a bit difficult.

The towers are about 50m tall and each sail about half that. I found the fifteen windmills simultaneously imposing and beautiful. There is a much more picturesque view of them from Carcoar Railway Station, and from Carcoar Cemetery.

Remains of a farm building built by my husband's distant relative.

Another scene from the family farm, typical of well-maintained grazing land in this area with remnant eucalypts for shade. This farmer, as with most, has been reafforesting his property. I explained to the Twig that in my youth, one never saw young trees on farmland -- only remnant specimen trees, probably left from when the land was cleared a hundred years back. These days, it's common to see belts of young trees along fence lines, thanks to Landcare. Grazing animals and crops do better when sheltered from hot summer winds and freezing gales, and our delicate soil needs protection from erosion, water loss and salinity. The earthwork on the right is a dam. Despite the green grass, this area is in drought. I'm glad to say some rain fell while we were in the area.

Before I get into trouble, I'd better explain that the Twig is on a path through this wheatfield! After his tour of the family farm, viewing various historical relics, the Twig complained of fatigue on his way up the hill to the homestead. Then he met some boys playing cricket, and we didn't see him for three hours...

Note for Sydney travellers: the waratahs are out along the Darling Causeway. If you are up in the Blue Mountains, go and have a look!

* Daylight robbery by a bank, on the other hand, is so common as to be unremarkable.

Friday, October 9, 2009

How to Get Rid of Cabbage White Caterpillars

Gavin posted today at Simple Green Frugal Co-op on his adventures in dealing with Cabbage White caterpillars in his garden. I thought I'd put together all I know about the Cabbage White and what has worked for me.

Know Your Enemy

The Cabbage White butterfly, Pieris rapae, seems to be one of the commonest garden pests worldwide. The caterpillars feed on crucifers/brassicas, and have a particular liking for cabbage and broccoli. The caterpillars hatch from single eggs on the underside of a leaf, and stay on the underside until they become large, when they move to the top. They work their way from outer plant leaves to inner ones. Early signs of their presence are pinholes on outer leaves, which quickly become larger until leaves are skeletonised. Green frass (chunky caterpillar poo!) is sometimes visible. Once the caterpillars are in the cabbage heart or into the broccoli head, they cannot be eradicated without chemical use.

In Sydney, the butterflies are more common in the warmer months, and you can expect to see caterpillar damage once daytime maximums move past about 20 C (that is, more than half the year!). The lifespan of the insect is about a month, with the last generation over-wintering in cocoons. The butterflies find each other -- and egg-laying sites -- by sight.


Forget it. Unless your country is killing Cabbage Whites as part of a Four Pests Campaign.


A lot of people overlook prevention, but insect plagues don't just happen. They occur when there is a confluence of favourable conditions. Here are some ways to make the lives of Cabbage Whites more difficult:
  • Encourage insectivorous birds. These tend to be smaller birds, so provide dense (even prickly) bushes for habitat, and compost your cat. Provide a bird-bath. If you have chooks, consider tractoring them in your vegie patch so that they can eat any caterpillars they find.
  • Encourage predatory insects. Stop spraying general insecticides in your garden, and don't kill wasps unless you really have to (when they have inconveniently-located nests). Wasps feed the caterpillars to their young. If your brassicas support braconid wasp pupae, don't pull the plants out till the wasps hatch. Remember the bird-bath -- most predatory insects need water to drink.
  • Hide the cabbages. Interplant them with other vegetables. Patches and lines of identical plants are too easy for passing butterflies to see.
  • Look populated. Scatter white half-eggshells around your brassicas. Apparently, the butterflies perceive these as other butterflies, and head off to lay their eggs in a less populated area. The calcium from the eggshells is good for your garden.
  • Get real. If you insist on growing brassicas in warmer weather, you will get caterpillars on them. Not only are the butterflies multiplying, the brassicas themselves are not as healthy as they are in cooler weather, and therefore attract more pests. As evidence, I give you the photo below of one of my winter-grown broccoli, which is entirely unmarked.

But I Want to Kill Them!

Go out in the early morning and you will find the caterpillars sitting on top of the leaves, usually near the ribs. Pick them off and feed them to your chooks, or throw them onto the lawn for the magpies as Gavin does.

That's Yucky! I Want a Nice Civilised Pesticide!

Probably the most appropriate pesticide to use is Bacillus thuringiensis, sold as B.t. or Dipel. These bacteria attack caterpillars only, nothing else, and Dipel is therefore permitted in most organic certification systems. According to the MSDS, it's about as safe as you can get with a pesticide. Now go away and get over yourself.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Move a Chook Dome

It was time to move the chook dome today. Here's a step-by step guide:
  1. Check new site and remove anything you want to keep or eat yourself.
  2. Remove feed and water containers.
  3. Remove eggs.
  4. Remove laying box (ie, old mower-catcher). It's a good time to clean it well and dry it in the sun.
  5. Step inside dome.
  6. Take perch out of its loops and leave on ground.
  7. Grab two opposing ribs and lift the dome about 15cm off the ground. This is low enough to keep the chooks in but high enough to clear small obstacles. Make use of any handy children to shoo the chooks in the right direction.
  8. Move dome to the new location (ideally, right next to the previous one -- no need to exhaust yourself!). Lift the side if necessary to clear any large obstacles.
  9. Place dome on new site and step out.
  10. Check that there are no hollows where a chook might escape under the dome. Bricks are useful to cover any gaps.
  11. Replace feed and water containers, perch, nesting box.
Gosh, that was a tiring ten minutes, wasn't it?

Actually, my move took a bit longer than that, because I spent extra time at step 1. Here's the harvest from the new site right before moving the chooks in:

650g beetroot (one large, the rest small)
550g parsnips
handful dill
2 small heads celery
1 head silver beet

I was astonished by the number of snails I found, but the girls were pretty pleased. The rest of the bed is mainly warrigal greens and flowering chervil.

Last week's Good Living had a recipe (not online) that is actually useful right now: a salad of grilled goat's cheese-on-toast, roast beetroot, hazelnuts and broad beans. My garden has supplied me with the fresh young broad beans as well as the beetroot, so I made it for dinner. Rather fiddly for a weeknight, and not exactly frugal, but it tasted great.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Sylvan Grove Native Garden

Yesterday we took our boys for a picnic and "bushwalk" at Sylvan Grove Native Garden in Picnic Point. This pocket native garden slopes down towards the Georges River and is a lovely spot to wander in for a few hours. I heard that it was open through the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society: the hours vary through the year, so check the website before you set off.

The first plant I saw was this lovely white waratah. Orchids were blooming everywhere, though the gardener on duty told me we had missed the peak season. I suppose we did miss the showy Sydney Rock Orchid, but there were smaller pink, white and cream orchids in profusion, mostly Dendrobium kingianum. There was also a species of Greenhood. The Prostanthera family were certainly making their presence felt in all the dryer patches. It is a pity that I can't stand the smell of the foliage as the white, pink or mauve blooms are so showy (see the bottom picture).

The garden, as I mentioned, is on sloping Sydney sandstone country. Most of the plants are native to this area, and 'foreigners' are given sunnier or shadier spots depending on temperament. The path wends back and forth across the slope, making the garden feel considerably larger than 1.5ha (3.7 acres). Traditional bush gardens in Australia tend to take a 'stroll garden' style, and this spacious feeling is one of the advantages. Many plants are named. Species of particular interest (rare and endemic species, bush-tucker plants) are numbered so that you can refer to details in the little guide-book.

The boys enjoyed zooming along the path to the next number; they have not developed an interest in plants yet (come to think of it, I hadn't either, at their age). In fact, the Twig lectured me at the start: "Now Mummy, we aren't here to study every plant in detail. The purpose of this bushwalk is to get exercise!" Well, they exercised and I wandered!

There is a cool, shady rainforest gully with lots of different types of ferns -- including one I hadn't seen before. The Geek commented that it looked as if it had been made in China; the leaflets had a peculiar flatness to them, as if stamped from a sheet of green plastic! The boys also had the chance to feel a sandpaper fig. The rough leaves were used by Aboriginal people to smooth spears and the like.

I was also impressed with the enormous flowers on this Geraldton Wax -- they're about 3cm across! Not sure if it's a cultivar or just really well-cared-for.

The endemic Boronia mollis, with its musk-stick-pink flowers, shows up clearly in sandstone country in spring.

I was very impressed to see a big Chorizema cordatum (Heart-leaf Flame-pea) in dry but heavy shade near the top of the slope. This small open shrub is a native of the very different climate and soil of WA. I'm afraid I haven't done very well with the colours -- the flowers are much more shockingly orange and pink than you see here. And as they prefer shade, the colours are quite eye-popping!

This garden is an excellent place to get a good look at both sandstone flora and Western Sydney species in an afternoon, as well as a few others. The majority of plants are clearly marked and the garden is lovingly maintained, though I felt some shrubs could do with pruning to improve the shape. There are a few parking spaces at the entrance, or you can park in the street. There are toilets at the top of the block and a selection of useful gardening leaflets is available there, along with a visitor's-book. While there are seats scattered through the gardens, it's a place to take your sandwiches rather than the full picnic spread as there isn't much open space -- certainly no lawns or barbecues. There is no kiosk. The garden is quite shady, due to good tree cover and its easterly aspect. The duty gardener told me that the shade is a little too heavy for really good flowers on some species, but it is therefore more comfortable in the summer months. While the garden has no steps, a person with mobility problems would still find some undulating parts difficult to negotiate. The Sprig managed to take a tumble on a sloping path, and now has a grazed nose -- but that's what four-year-olds do. If your children are a bit young to go on proper bushwalks, this garden will satisfy them for the afternoon. It is a pity Sylvan Grove Native Garden is not better known. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Red Sky at Morning...

We had a welcome thunderstorm yesterday which dumped about 15mm on us, and I went to sleep with wet earth scenting my gardening dreams. At 4am the stench of dust woke me, and there was a weird foggy look to the still-dark sky. At 6am it looked like this:

The westerly wind was cold -- usually it's a hot wind that we associate with bushfires. It was typically strong, though -- we were getting 60 km/h gusts while I took the photos, and 80 km/h later in the morning.

This dust is from northern South Australia, most likely the Lake Eyre Basin. It has travelled 1400km to us and is now on its way to Brisbane and New Zealand. In Sydney, the airborne particulates reached such dangerous levels that school children were kept inside all day. The Twig missed out on his school swimming lesson and on both outdoor breaks today*, but was kept happy indoors with domino runs, his latest craze. People with lung diseases were advised to stay indoors unless they needed medical assistance as a result of the dust-storm!

This dust-storm is unique. The last bad dust-storm in Sydney was in 1944, but it was not on the scale of today's. Moreover, our cultivation techniques have improved since then with the move to zero-tillage agriculture, and dust-storms in general have been declining. Today's dust-storm was caused by the present unusually long, unusually hot drought... which will become less unusual in the future, we fear.

* Children in Sydney schools usually have two breaks for eating and playing outdoors. At our school, one is of 35 and one is of 40 minutes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How Economical is a Vegetable Garden?

Over at Down To Earth last Thursday, there was an interesting comment from Tracy in Brisbane:
A few people have commented to me recently that growing one's own vegetables/salad items is not always financially viable... What would you have to say about such claims....?
I am assuming that by 'financially viable' they mean 'money expended on the vegetable patch does not exceed the usual shop price of the harvest'. That is, is a vegetable patch economical?

I thought I'd consider the matter on my own blog. There are a lot of variables, so it's hard to make a general case. I can only provide specifics for my situation, and raise some of the issues with the calculations.

Vegetable garden costs per annum:
  • Seeds ($80)
  • 4 bales old hay &/or sugar cane mulch (say $50)
  • Additional water (say 2 hours a week @ 4 l/min = 25 kl *$1.87 = $50)
  • Bag potting mix ($10)
  • Electricity to run my seedling heating pad at night for 2 months (say $5, but it's probably less)
  • Chook food, since the chooks provide the fertiliser and eat insects and weeds ($120)

Total cost: $315 per annum

  • Some gardeners buy most vegetables in as seedlings; this is considerably more expensive. Home-collected seeds are, of course, much cheaper.
  • I was in two minds about including the hay, as its first purpose for guinea pig bedding in winter. I decided, however, that I would need to mulch the vegies even if I didn't have guinea pigs, so I left it in.
  • My chooks are a fundamental part of my vegetable garden, because I tractor them in it for half the year. I rarely move manure about (only when I want it around a plant in the front garden) because the chooks generally deposit it where I need it. Of course, if you don't have chickens, you will have to get your fertilising and pest-killing done in other ways, which are probably going to involve more money.

Food produced per annum:
  • Free range eggs, say 2 a day for 9 months= 45 doz (@ $6/doz, that's $270)

Breakeven cost for vegetables: $45 per year

Now I don't weigh and price my harvests as Scarecrow does, but I'm pretty sure that I am getting more than $45 worth of vegies out of my patch in a year!

  • I'd probably recoup my $45 on fresh herbs alone. If I didn't grow fresh herbs, however I would probably use less of them in my cooking, rather than buy them in -- so how do I account for that?
  • If I grew potatoes, carrots and onions in my back yard, I would not get the dollar value that I do by growing asparagus, fancy lettuces, Tuscan kale, herbs and so on.
  • I wonder what the market price of chervil is? I have never seen it for sale, so how do I price it? What about the interesting cultivars I have that are not available in the shops?
  • If you have an organic vegie patch, its contents should be priced accordingly. You are not producing forced tomatoes for $2/kg.
  • The taste issue is a big one for home gardeners. Even the expensive truss tomatoes aren't a patch on the taste of a fresh, home-grown tomato. Strawberries, peas and sweet corn also deteriorate very quickly, and are never as nice from the shops. But you'll find a 'taste premium' on all home-grown food. Even spuds!
As a final note, someone will no doubt ask how I priced my time. I haven't. The reason is that my garden is also my hobby. I don't buy scrapbooking materials, or cross-stitch, or anything else in the artistic or craft line (note that many crafts are quite expensive). Which, I suppose, raises another question: should I deduct at least some of the money I spend on gardening from my craft budget?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Where do the Children Play? 18 Tips for Child-Sensitive Garden Design

In the course of my work, I came across Earthplay, designers of child-centred outdoor play areas. They have some fascinating articles and an intriguing set of links (I haven't explored them all yet).

While Earthplay focus on commercial and public play areas, there is much that is applicable to home gardens. I recommend reading Magical Playscapes first to stimulate your thinking; it did mine today.

Our house is like many suburban houses in Australia, with a narrow (4') passage up one side. It's a neglected spot, too poorly-lit, dry and narrow to be a planting space. In other words, it's a junk area. Well, my boys have discovered the lengths of timber and the climbing frame painting stand there, and they like it. First, I issued the ritual comment about redbacks. Then I moved out a few items that made the area very difficult to access, and rediscovered a 60x80cm slab of concrete and some Besser blocks.

Inspiration struck. The boys and I pushed some of the blocks against the wall of the house, and levered the slab on top. The Twig and I discussed the wonders of levers, and I also gave him a vehement lecture on the folly of putting fingers under a heavy object while it is being moved. Fortunately he didn't injure himself.

Now, the boys have a low flat area that they can use as a seat or stage for domino runs (which is what happened today) or whatever else they choose. A 'nothing' area is now a desirable play space, after only half an hour's work.

The article 25 ways to improve your outdoor space is not designed for the home garden, so I've shamelessly appropriated the ideas from it to make a list which is. I've written another post previously, which has more practical tips.

  1. Which parts of your back yard do your children gravitate to? Which parts do they avoid, or not use much?

  2. Do they have easy access to their outdoor toys?

  3. Wait a minute, do you have suitable outdoor toys? Not just balls and tricycles, think of blocks, planks and other items for imaginative and construction play.

  4. Is there a richly-textured natural environment? Stones, trees, shrubs, small plants, gravel, mulch, sand? Does the topography vary (you could add hillocks, raised beds, or a dry stream bed)?

  5. Is there a way that they can play with water?

  6. Do you have pets? Do you encourage wildlife, and a respectful interest in animals of all sizes? (Do keep in mind, however, that while most children torment animals through sheer ignorance at some point, they do not all become psychopaths.)

  7. Are there plants that children can eat or enjoy smelling?

  8. Do the children each have a garden plot of their own?

  9. Does the built environment encourage exploration of its own materials, or of the space itself?

  10. Do fences and other barriers define spaces, or just say a big NO?

  11. Could you put in a labyrinth, or spiral path like this?

  12. Are there secret places and hidden paths to find?

  13. Are there any open structures that children can play on imaginatively? Trees to climb?

  14. Is there somewhere for balancing games: a beam or group of stumps?

  15. Is there a place to do art work outside? A concrete path for chalking, a place to do painting?

  16. Is there space for children to build their own constructions from found materials?

  17. Do you have materials that can be linked with science discussions? A rain gauge, thermometer, microscope? What about a sundial?

  18. Consider the sounds of the garden. Do you have wind-chimes? Some plants can be made into musical instruments. Others make distinctive sounds in the breeze, such as casuarinas and bamboo. Then there are water-related sounds: consider a fountain or a shishi-odoshi.

I suspect you will find that many of the things that make a garden exciting for children to explore also make it a delight to adults. Perhaps it's time to take a child's-eye look at your garden to fuel your creative processes.

Oh, do you have an ear-worm at the moment? Go on, you know you want to.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Small Miracles

It doesn't matter how many times I see it; whenever seeds come up, I feel the same sense of wonder.

Above: 'Brandywine' and 'Principe Borghese' tomatoes
Below: 'Lemon' cucumbers

Saturday, August 29, 2009

To Home Grown, and Beyond!

Tonight we watched Buzz Lightyear buckle himself into the Pizza Planet delivery van with an annoying air of virtue. It is with something of the same air that a vegetable grower reports to others about the delight of eating their own crops, and with which food-lovers describe making something from scratch. Stand by; my day has been spent like that!

Earlier this week, I realised that at least one of our three-litre milk bottles was sour, as had been one of last week's. Coles Online has a policy of only refunding goods within 24 hours of delivery, but the helpline lady credited this week's milk anyway -- after all, nobody opens all their milk for the week to check it for freshness. Now a small amount of sour milk is an excuse to make pikelets, pancakes, scones and so forth, but 6 litres of sour milk is another matter.

Then you move to Option B: tvorog. It's pronounced tvaROG, and it is the Slavic word from which we and the Germans derive the word quark: fresh curd-cheese. Of course I asked my Dad for advice; he remembers his mother making both tvorog and ripened cheeses. My adventure in making tvorog I will leave for another time (I used 3 litres of the sour milk). At the end of the process, I ended up with lots of whey, which Dad told me was used in making bread (Rhonda Jean has also mentioned using whey in bread on her blog). I've frozen most of it in two-cup portions; the Geek tells me this means it is "whey cool".

I thought bread rolls with dinner might be nice. We were planning to have quiche while we watched the movie. And I had a brainwave about a salad while I was working in the garden today. So here is dinner:

Silverbeet, onion & mozzarella quiche: homegrown silverbeet and parsley, and homegrown eggs. Confession: frozen pastry. I don't do pastry, unless it's Ukrainian style.
Wholemeal bread rolls from scratch: leftover whey.
Salad: homegrown 'Forellenschuss' lettuce, dill, beetroot leaves, and baked baby beetroot (carrot from shop). Dressing of garlic, tangelo juice and zest, olive oil, salt, pepper.

I'm not sure whether it's increasing experience or the use of whey, but the bread rolls are the best I've ever made. The dough rose impressively to triple its original size!

Friday, August 28, 2009

I'd Say that I had Spring Fever...

No, it isn't spring officially, but today it reached 26 C here and was still 21 C at sunset. We've had a couple of weeks of settled sunny weather. While soil temperatures are still too low for planting most summer crops in open ground, I've succumbed to the warm days and started to plant them in punnets and pots. I'll put the plants in my heating unit overnight.

Last week I sowed cherry tomatoes, which are more hardy. They are already coming up! I have three pots each of 'Tommy Toe' and 'Broad Ripple Yellow Currant'. There is a 'Tommy Toe' in my garden which has overwintered. I'm still not convinced about these; they didn't fruit well last year and I didn't feel the flavour was anything to write home about. 'Broad Ripple Yellow Currant' is a favourite of mine, despite the slight misnomer. If you pick yellow fruit, they are deliciously tangy, but if you leave them to turn golden they are deliciously sweet. The 'Currant' part is because the fruits are so small and prolific, but I haven't fathomed the 'Broad Ripple' bit.

I've planted out the remaining seeds from an out of date packet of mixed heirloom tomatoes, just in case some germinate. Then a few each of 'Principe Borghese' (a cooking and drying type) and of 'Brandywine', which I hear good things about online.

Well, if it's the right moon phase for tomatoes, it's right for all other fruiting plants, so out came more punnets and in went a few seeds of Eggplant 'Listada de Gandia', the pretty striped variety, and a few of the Ground Cherry 'Aunt Molly'. And a few mixed heirloom chillies. And mini capsicums. And the out-of-date Cucumber 'Sweet and Striped', with a few in-date 'Lemon' Cucumber seeds. Then I cleared some weeds from a bed in my garden, as I have plans for some bush beans tomorrow.


I only planted a few seeds of each, all right? Just a few. Wouldn't want you to think I was getting carried away like some garden bloggers I could mention.

But I do get carried away by Bryn Terfel...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

No Zucchini, Thanks! Four Tips for Avoiding Garden Gluts

This photo was taken in May. How many different vegetables can you see? (Click to enlarge.)

I thought I'd write some tips about gluts after several posters asked Rhonda Jean of Down to Earth how she dealt with them. Now deliberate creation of a glut can be useful, if you like (or need) to preserve your own food. If all your cooking tomatoes are ripe at the same time, it's easy to make passata. But I can't spare the time to do preserving, nor is my vegie patch large enough to provide us with all the passata we'd need in a year. So I don't want gluts. Here is how I avoid them:
  1. Keep an eye out for long-cropping varieties. Some plants, especially tomatoes, have been bred to suit commercial growers; they produce their crop in a short space of time. For the home gardener, a tomato plant that gives you two tomatoes a week for eight weeks is an asset. One that gives you 16 tomatoes in a week and promptly carks it is... not quite so useful. Heirloom varieties tend to be longer croppers, but check the documentation before you buy.
  2. Stagger your plantings through the entire growing season. In Sydney, I can plant peas any time between March and July and they will crop in about two months. Now I could plant all my peas in March and be sick of them by June, or I could plant a section of trellis in March, a section in April, and so on, and have peas over the whole winter. Which sounds better to you? Of course this does mean that gastronomy beats aesthetics -- no serried ranks of uniform vines any more. Not a problem for me as I use guild planting anyway. An advantage is that early and late plantings tend to attract fewer pests; pest numbers aren't as high as at the peak of the season.
  3. Don't plant what you don't like. Zucchini grow easily here in summer and crop well. They can be cooked in many different ways. There's only one problem. My family aren't keen on zucchini. So I don't plant them... not even one. I have therefore saved myself a square metre of garden bed and that whole Sneaking Zucchini thing I've been hearing about.
  4. Don't plant more than you will eat. OK, there is no such thing as too much asparagus, or tomatoes, or cucumbers. But how many cabbages can you manage in a year? My family would probably only manage to eat through a cabbage a month. If we allow for some losses, that's all of 18 seedlings planted out in a year. I raise them from seed, so I'd only sow about three punnet-cells with cabbage seed a month. If you know you won't eat a lot, don't plant a lot, even if you don't want to calculate it as precisely as this.
(The photo shows lettuce, broccoli, pumpkin, beetroot, celery, pak choy, eggplant, and silverbeet. I can also see a parsnip leaf.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Picture This: Under the Nanking Cherry

August’s Picture This Photo Contest subject at Gardening Gone Wild is Down on Your Knees. Photos had to be taken from knee level or lower. I'm not quite sure how this photo acquired its psychedelic look, but it did, so I'm submitting it in the “Oh my goodness!” category!

I was simply trying to take a photo of the blossoms against the blue of the sky, and I liked this branch because it shows you the blooms in different stages, in sequence. I have taken another photo of the same branch below, for which I did not have to lie down.

I've always loved this plant, which we didn't know by name (it's Prunus tomentosa) for many years, and which I now know has many common names. It branches from the base, like Chaenomeles japonica, and the canes grow to about 60cm high. After about 30 years it may spread to cover more than a square metre and be rather taller... that's how long my Dad has been growing it. My plant is a cutting from his, and has delicate pale-pink blooms. A garden nearby has a variety that has musk-stick pink flowers with so many petals that they look like pom-poms, and more deeply wrinkled leaves than on our variety. It also seems to be taller, but it might just be a very old plant. I prefer our variety.

I'm growing my Nanking Cherry as part of a mixed informal hedge. It's a quiet, unobtrusive plant when not in flower, and even when it blooms the flowers are dainty rather than spectacular. It would be a lovely inclusion next to a reflective pool or some other place where it could be contemplated rather than passed over.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Couple of Lists

Firstly, a list of the seeds I planted last weekend. August is still too cold to plant warm-season crops in Sydney. While the day temperatures are lovely, it's still too cold (and occasionally frosty) at night, so my punnets stay either on a heating pad or on the porch overnight.
  • Beetroot 'Globe'
  • Broccoli 'Romanesco'
  • Pak Choy
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leek 'Elephant'
  • Lettuce 'Australian Yellow Leaf'
  • Silverbeet 'Five Colour Mix'
  • Coriander and dill
Unfortunately for me, the Sprig trod on a watering tray and upset two punnets. I shoved the contents back in but am now expecting two punnets of mixed seedlings!

Secondly, a list of the new seeds I've ordered. I have several different kinds of tomato, bean and lettuce already, so don't assume I won't be planting things because I haven't bought them! My mother has a collection of shoes; I have seeds.
  • Sweet Corn 'True Gold'
  • Sweet Corn 'Golden Bantam'
  • Leek 'King Richard'
  • Bean 'Yin Yang'
  • Broad Bean 'Aquadulce'
  • Beetroot, Heirloom Mix
  • Cabbage 'Mini'
  • Capsicum Mini Sweet Mix
  • Cucumber, 'Lebanese Mini Muncher'
  • Eggplant, Heirloom Mix
  • Kale, 'Tuscan Black'
  • Onion, Borrettana Yellow
  • Pea 'Greenfeast'
  • Pea 'Purple Podded Dutch'
  • Florence Fennel
Also ordered Windfalls, a lovely little preserving book by Sue Ruchel. I have read the original version (it was recently revised) and it is for people like me, who don't make a habit of preserving food but like to do it occasionally, in small quantities (as the title suggests). Bottling a year's supply of tomatoes is not in my plan, but the occasional batch of chutney or lemon butter might be.

Friday, August 7, 2009

New Wildlife Discovered!

Well, new to me. I took a couple of photos earlier this week of a strange phenomenon on my bolting broccoli. There were two little nets of yellow... eggs?... No, too big for that... pupae? Each net had one very large but crook-looking Cabbage White caterpillar next to it. I fed one caterpillar to the chooks but left the other in place to see what would happen. It's disappeared now too.

I knew that some parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside caterpillars, but couldn't figure out what was going on here. Then I read Lyn's post today, and now I know that these are indeed pupating parasitic wasps, small Braconids. More information here about them.

I have seen quite a few varieties of wasp in my back yard but haven't been stung by any yet. Once I saw an enormous wasp fly onto my washing line. It took a large bite out of the Cabbage White caterpillar it was holding. Left a bit of green goo on the sheet it was on, but I forgave it immediately!

Apart from their interesting behaviour, there's another reason to have a good look at the wasps in your garden, and that is to make sure you aren't harbouring the European Wasp (if you are Australian, I mean). This page has good pictures of the wasp and its amazing nest, but far too many capitalised words. If you happen to find a European Wasp nest, leave it alone (they can contain up to 100, 000 workers, each with a reusable sting!) and contact your Council for advice.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Glorious Wattle

A shot of the same garden bed as before, taken last Monday morning. You will have to imagine the scent for yourself -- light, sweet, polleny.

The taller fringe wattle and scribbly gum, backed by the magnificent gum tree two doors over. I wish I knew what it was.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Eggs and Wattle

I must show you some of the new produce from the Back Yard. These offerings formed part of our lunch today. I hard-boiled them, but they were too fresh (up to a week old) to peel well. Annie's eggs are white (she's a White Leghorn) and Lizzie's (she's a Rhode Island Red) are the pale brown. The Sprig described them as "pink"! Being only four, he has not encountered the word "puce" yet.

Annie and Lizzie seem to be quite reliable layers.I should also report that they are doing a great job at clearing kikuyu from under the lemon tree, to the extent that they are desperate for more green food. It is amazing to see the quantity of green pick that hens will put away; no wonder battery eggs don't taste or look very good. Our eggs have yolks about the same colour as the nasturtium.

I have a workmate of Italian descent, who was telling me about the pasta sauces which are thickened with raw egg. I only knew of Pasta Carbonara, but there are a number of others. My colleague had tried to make them at home, but somehow they tasted wrong. Inedibly wrong. I suspect that the egg has to be very fresh to work well in such a sauce.

I shall put aside the smugness of the chook owner quickly, because I know this isn't a great photograph. This one corner of my back yard, as it appeared at sunset today.

No matter how I fiddle with the settings, I can't quite reproduce the stunning brightness of the wattle in my garden at the moment. If you haven't seen wattle but have seen a group of laburnums in flower, you might be able to imagine what my back yard is like -- except that laburnums are a stronger yellow and coarse in comparison: a marching band, while wattles are a corps de ballet.

The Twig isn't just included for scale. He's included because he needs to put that ball away. Yes, over there. It's been outside for a week. Now! And those other toys you've left lying around too! No, you can't do it 'later'! Nor can you pack up with a book under your arm! Give it to me and I'll put it on the table while you put those things away!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Garden Roundup (No, not the Herbicide)

School holidays have slowed my posting down a bit, as you might have noticed! But I have managed to do some gardening-related things. On Wednesday I spent a couple of hours at Flower Power at Enfield. This large nursery has a big shrub section, lots of pots, and a really impressive array of seeds from many companies. Being winter, the flower punnets were all of the pansy tribe. I picked up some some white "face" pansies, as well as thyme, apple mint and winter savory. Most of these were planted yesterday.

The only disappointment was the offering of currants and cool-climate fruit trees. These generally do not cope with the humid Sydney summers, and fruits that require chilling simply don't get it here. Then there's the fruit fly issue. This plant choice doesn't inspire confidence in the nursery, but my experience with the staff was of friendliness and helpfulness.

In one of my rare forays into composting, I built a small (1 sq. m) heap last weekend. They boys helped by hosing the layers, then each other. (Sydney in winter, where boys end up running around wet with no clothes on!) I've obviously managed to get the proportions of materials correct, as it heated up very quickly. It was gratifying to see steam rising from the air holes on the next cold morning! The pile has already collapsed about 20cm and is still very hot.

I have followed Yolanda's advice and planted my remaining dozen peas into an egg carton. I have a horrible feeling that either rats or pigeons (which are just rats with wings) have been eating the seeds in my garden.

This week's garden harvest has included beetroot for borshch, lettuce for a salad, and lots of chervil for a potato salad. The air is filled with the sweet scent of my fringe wattles. And best of all, Lizzie has started laying pale brown eggs.

Monday, July 6, 2009

First Frost, and Other Blighted Hopes

Frosts in Sydney are infrequent and light, like the one that left its touches on my heaped lawn clippings this morning. Our humidity is often too low for frost to form in winter, or it's cloudy, which keeps the temperature too high, or else it's windy. I'd be surprised to see more than half-a-dozen frosts a year, and the ground never freezes.

The results are in from my Great Pea Experiment. Not a single pea came up and there was no sign of any peas in the ground. Perhaps a bird is eating them?

So I did what any gardener would do. I took a deep breath and... sowed another batch.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

In Which We Meet Lizzie, and Learn More About Chooks

Lizzie has been named after a bluff elderly steam lorry in Thomas the Tank Engine. Unfortunately, while she looked reasonably sure of herself at the hatchery (she pecked the Sprig!), she is being thoroughly bullied by Annie. It's called the 'pecking order' for a reason, and 10,000 years of domestication has not civilised it yet.

If you are thinking that Lizzie looks more like an oversize quail than a respectable bird at point-of-lay, that's because there was an outbreak of feather-picking in this group of pullets. It's a more aggressive manifestation of the pecking order, and is caused by boredom. I'm satisfied that the hatchery is as good as they get, but a hatchery isn't a place for grown-up hens to live. The feathers will grow back.

I had better explain that any bird past about 18 weeks is considered at point of lay, though most won't lay until at least 21 weeks, often later, depending on breed and conditions. People have told me that if a layer is already present, younger birds will reach point of lay earlier. I hope it's true of our new girl! Annie lays 4-5 eggs a week, which isn't quite enough for us, especially as the Sprig's favourite food is "dippy egg with soldiers". I'm pretty partial to boiled eggs myself!

There's a mystery there, though: Annie's eggs weigh under 50g, but take longer than three minutes to become a "three-minute egg" (ie, firm white, soft yolk). I wonder if this is something to do with the very low proportion of thin albumen in fresh eggs.

If you look at Lizzie's picture, you will see a small pale-pink comb and undeveloped wattles, not much larger or darker than Annie's looked at 10 weeks. A sexually mature bird develops a red comb and wattles, which then grow larger remarkably quickly. Annie has been laying for about 8 weeks now:

I rather like her red bonnet!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wholemeal Apple and Native Raspberry Streusel Cake

By request of the Sensible Vermonter.

125g butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 cups wholemeal self-raising flour
1/2 cup milk
1 Granny Smith apple
a few native raspberries
left-over crumble mixture from the back of the fridge

Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).
Grease and flour a deep cake pan (20cm/8 in across).
Cream butter, sugar and vanilla.
Beat in eggs one at a time.
Beat in flour alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour.
Beat mixture for one minute (or 30 strokes with a wooden spoon).
Peel, quarter, then core apple. Cut each quarter into 4 thin slices.
Spread batter evenly in prepared pan.
Push slices of apple into cake to create an attractive pattern. Do the same with the raspberries, but lightly and gently.
Sprinkle cake with crumble mixture.
Allow children to lick beaters, spoon and bowl.
Or maybe not.
Bake cake 50 mins, but test for doneness with a skewer.
Stand for 5 minutes before turning out.
Turn it out onto a rack somewhere where you can easily collect the bits of crumble that fall off, either to replace or eat yourself.

While this cake is my own invention, it is derived from the "Basic Plain Cake" recipe in The Commonsense Cookery Book, which has a number of variations, including one topped with apple slices and cinnamon sugar. You could top the cake with any other quick-cooking fruit, such as blueberries.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Native Raspberry

Here are some pictures from my Native Raspberry, probably Rubus probus.

There are a number of native species. They are surprisingly varied in leaf shape, flower colour, fruit colour and thorniness. Mine has few thorns, but some species are quite spiny.

The berries are not as strongly-flavoured as domesticated raspberries, and have a great many minuscule seeds. I have collected a handful of ripe fruit today and made a wholemeal apple and raspberry streusel cake. Any excuse for cake!

The boys liked the raspberries especially and I don't expect to get any more ripe ones intact to the kitchen.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Drive in the Country

We went on a trip yesterday to Luddenham to pick up a friend for Annie, after Penny's death two weeks ago. Penny was six years old, which I understand is a reasonable age for an Isa Brown, and once the weather turned cold she grew old very quickly.

From our place, it's less than an hour to Barter's Hatchery (not to be confused with Bartter's, now part of Steggles -- their chooks come cooked!). Annie's new friend is a lovely Rhode Island Red at point of lay, about 19 weeks old. We have not named her yet.

The Barters man told me that the fashion for chooks means they have had trouble keeping up with demand -- isn't it lovely that people are rediscovering the joy of chook-keeping! Of course, this isn't without its problems. I was told of a disgruntled customer who turned up the day after he'd purchased a dozen day-olds. They'd all died overnight and he wanted his money back. Being the type who won't be told anything (they'd tried!), he'd put the chicks in an area with a concrete floor and no heating.

We bought some strawberries in Wallacia (oh, the fragrance!) and had lunch at a takeaway there. Of course you can't leave a chook in a car for too long, so we had the box on the ground next to us. The chook, distressed by the change in her situation, sounded the alarm frequently -- you can imagine the looks and comments from passers-by, and our responses!

"Yep, we like our lunch really fresh!"

"Doesn't everyone take their chicken out to lunch?"

As we were only 7km away, we decided to take the Silverdale Road to Warragamba Dam. The new visitor's centre is yet to be opened (it was burnt down in 2001) and the dam is still closed while works continue on the original spillways. I'm sorry to say that the new spillway, while certainly necessary, has spoilt the look of the dam, which was previously elegantly symmetrical. The new spillway is to one side and almost as broad as the original dam wall.

We drove back to the motorway on Mulgoa Road, stopping at the Glenmore Nursery for low-grade hay at $8/bale. We don't need high-quality hay for animal bedding. Generally, we use our own dry lawn clippings, but the combination of rain and cold weather makes this an impossibility. I would have loved to have a better look at the nursery, but it really was time to take our new friend home.

Our drive took us across a picturesque part of Sydney, part of our remaining rural belt. You can see market gardens, battery farms, cows, sheep, goats, and horses. This is the world of five-acre blocks. Unfortunately, some of them consist of an ostentatious house and a five-acre lawn -- what a dreadful waste of good garden or farm space! I do wonder what prompts people to buy a large block of land and not do anything with it. I think our well-used fifth of an acre gives us plenty of work, relaxation, beauty and produce.

If you are travelling in the area yourself, these websites may be useful:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bird-Watching at Homebush Bay

I love the big skies here -- one of the advantages of living on the edge of the Cumberland Plain. Would you guess you're in the geographic centre of a city of four million people?

Serious, stay-in-a-hide-for-days bird-watching is not on the agenda for us, with two young boys. But nonetheless, we can wander to a bike track a few kilometres away and pop into the bird-hide at the Sydney Olympic Park Bird Refuge. The Geek took both these photos from the hide.

Black-Winged Stilts and Pacific Black Ducks (I think -- a common species, anyway) feeding on the mudflats. In the summer, this area is host to migratory species from Siberia and Central Asia. More details here.