Friday, January 16, 2009

A Drink for Just-Past-Bloom-Day

In some parts of the Northern Hemisphere the gardeners are getting a bit desperate for some colour, but I haven't managed to post on Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day yet because I keep missing the day! Founder Carol sounds a bit down, and I thought I'd offer a virtual drink to her and to all of you who need cheering up. A nice, bubbly, girly kind of drink. Cheers!

Here are some shots of flowers opening on my pink bottle-brush, Callistemon 'Pink Champagne'. Mine must be eight years old or more, and is approaching three metres in height. The brushes would be 10-15cm long.

I love the way the stamens unwind gradually from their capsules.

Insects and honey-eating birds flock to the flowers, which come in flushes. I love this fresh shell-pink, though I don't like the way the flower fades to a washed-out grey-pink after a few days. Once it stops flowering, the plant tends to disappear into the background. For this reason, I think Callistemons are at their best in a mixed shrubbery. If they are left unpruned, bottle-brushes become trees, but they retain a shrubby habit if clipped. A gentleman in a nearby street has two beautifully kept bottle-brush balls on his nature-strip. The new leaves are a pretty grey-green and hirsute, nice to touch -- when they age the leaves become hard. The foliage has a pleasant medicinal sort of smell when crushed.

Callistemons are tough (they're commonly used as street trees) and can be long-lived -- the three bottle-brushes outside one of my childhood homes must be about 40 years old and are still looking healthy. Callistemons like some water and many species do well on clay soils or in boggy ground. There are many cultivars, most with flowers in the pink-red-purple range, though there are cream/white species and a green one. Bottle-brushes are a good size for gardens: heights vary from under a metre to the magnificence of the Mildura specimen I photographed earlier (it is probably 'Harkness', an old hybrid). They require almost no attention. I'd suggest an annual feeding with blood and bone and to prune after flowering to discourage legginess. Or you can try your hand at topiary; either way, the plant won't mind. A toast to the Callistemon family!

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Backyard Chook Primer

This post is part of the Down to Earth Biggest Kitchen Table discussion on keeping chickens.

The domestic chicken is descended from a tropical forest bird, with the Malaysian Jungle Fowl probably being as close as we can get to the ancestral species. The birds got around in small flocks, scratching up the leaf-litter to obtain grubs, insects, worms, carrion, fallen fruit, herbs, grasses and seeds, as well as the small stones required for their crops. They had plenty of water and shade. At sunset, the birds would fly up to a branch to sleep, in order to avoid predators. Nests would be made on the ground, in a quiet inconspicuous place. The social structure was linear, with each bird knowing its exact place in the "pecking order".

Now if this is the animal we are dealing with, it should be obvious that a battery cage is a very bad thing -- but it should also be obvious that the old-fashioned chook run, with its hard-packed floor and absence of shade and greenery, is not much better. So what do we and chooks need to live happily ever after?
  • A social group (say a flock of 2-15 birds)
  • Plenty of room to walk around, with soft flooring for scratching
  • A place to dust-bathe (they particularly like ashes, probably to discourage parasites)
  • A mixed diet with a high protein content, because without sufficient protein they won't lay -- meat, legumes and insects should be included, not just grain
  • Shell-grit -- this provides both content for the crop and the calcium required to form eggshell
  • Access to "green pick", such as grass, lettuce, sorrel etc
  • Free access to water
  • Shade
  • A roost, preferably at a slight angle, as they sleep in pecking order. The dominant bird gets the highest (=safest) spot.
  • Safe sleeping quarters, protected from foxes, snakes etc. They actually sleep very soundly and are easy to grab after dark.
  • A secluded place to lay eggs, preferably easily accessible by humans
  • No sudden changes to chook society (which is why there is an extensive online literature about introducing new birds to your flock)
  • Your chooks will produce nitrogenous manure, excellent for plant growth

There are a number of ways to deal with these "inputs and outputs". Some people allow their chooks to range freely at all times, but this has its drawbacks. On a beautiful morning, you step out your back door, and immediately discover a little drawback, squishy and smelly and stuck to your bare foot. More little deposits are found all over your garden furniture. And they've hidden their eggs again. On the other hand, confining your chooks means that you have to fetch and carry all their food, water and manure, and you risk the run turning into an unhealthy dust-bowl.

Now wouldn't it be good if we could organise the chooks to eat the pests and weeds in the vegetable garden, and shovel their poo onto the garden beds for us? Enter the Chook Tractor.

A Chook Tractor is a movable run which you can put over a vegie bed to allow your chooks to do your weeding, digging, fertilising and pest-killing, thus saving you from performing arduous tasks you don't like and giving them to the chooks, who do. It's easy to make and use a Chook Tractor, as long as all your vegie beds are the same size and shape -- look online for ideas.

I use a Chook Dome, based on the plan from Linda Woodrow's excellent book, The Permaculture Home Garden. Obviously, this is suitable for the keyhole beds beloved of permies. My dome is about 2m in diameter (PVC conduit is sold in 6m lengths, and I used one length for the base). The framework is PVC pipe, drilled and wired together, covered with scavenged chook netting and reinforced with synthetic garden twine. It has lasted for four years but now requires maintenance: replacement of the rusty old mesh and tightening of the twine reinforcement. It also helps if your kids are not using it for chicken games!

Inside the dome I hang a roost. One section of the frame above the bar is not covered with mesh -- that's the door. Over this I have a piece of shadecloth, to which I've added eyelets and ties. I ensure the door faces solar north, to provide some shade. Over the top I tie a small tarpaulin (not shown), to provide shelter from rain. The nesting box is a grass-catcher from a defunct lawn-mower. Food and water containers, made from plastic milk cartons, are hung on the netting. A dome this size is suitable for 2-4 chooks. Throw in kitchen scraps, weeds, lawn clippings etc, and a fertile vegetable bed will appear like magic in a couple of weeks.

I rotate the dome from one bed to the next, ahead of the winter and summer growing seasons. When I run out of beds, the chooks are relocated to a run under our lemon tree, or another under the quince tree. Over summer, my chooks are allowed to range freely, because these runs, and the vegie patch, are on the exposed side of the back yard. This system has worked well for a number of years.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What Will my Husband Have to Say?

Maybe if I do a small picture, it won't look so bad.

I met some Flylady friends in Penrith today, and since I was in the area, I thought I'd pop in at a native nursery nearby. The first one I thought of was Sydney Wildflower Nursery West, but the owner has closed it to concentrate on his landscape work.

Cranebrook Native Nursery, however, was not too far away, so I went there instead. Unfortunately for me, they are about to close their retail business in order to concentrate on the wholesale side: they supply bush regeneration projects across Sydney, as well as the regular landscape trade. Unfortunately for my husband they were having a Closing Sale, with most things half-price or more.

I now own, er, another 31 plants! Here's the list:

Thyme Honey-Myrtle, Melaleuca thymifolia 'Cotton Candy'
Cardwell's Tea-Tree, Leptospermum flavescens 'Cardwell'
3x Dwarf Baeckea, Babingtonia virgata nana
Fine-Leaved Creeping Boobialla, Myoporum parvifolium (at the request of the Twig)
Native Violet, Viola hederacea 'Baby Blue'
Yellow Buttons, Helichrysum ramosissima
Spiny-headed Mat-rush, Lomandra longifolia
Blue Flax Lily, Dianella revoluta
6x Kangaroo Grass, Themeda triandra
4x Common Rush, Juncus usitatus
4x Swamp Foxtail Grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides
2x Canberra Grass, Scleranthus biflorus (at the request of the Sprig)
5x Swan River Daisy, Brachycome 'Break O' Day'

The Thyme Honey-Myrtle is a one-metre shrub with dainty dark-green leaves and pink (or mauve) flowers that look rather like fairy-floss, hence the cultivar name. Cardwell's Tea-Tree grows taller than that, probably 2m, and when in bloom is entirely covered with white. I think it's even prettier in bud, when its little salmon-pink balls are just starting to open. The Baeckea, as I noted the other day, is one of my favourite shrubs, because of its soft foliage as well as its tiny white flowers, and I'm only sorry that these are the low-growing kind. The rest are are ground-covers, herbs or grasses. All up, I paid $76. Now to work out where to place them!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Borer Attack!

It looks like I'll be replacing my Sydney Golden Wattle a bit sooner than I expected. It doesn't look unhealthy, does it?

We had some close friends over for lunch on Friday and one of them mentioned something flowering yellow up the back. "But I don't have anything yellow there!" and off I went to have a look. Unfortunately, borers have attacked the wattle. I cut off some yellowed branches the next day.

The froth here is sap; the tree is trying to defend itself by drowning the borers. Unfortunately, this tree is weeping froth everywhere. The sweet sap has attracted flies, too. If I were to cut off all the infested sections, there would be nothing left but a stump. Borers go for stressed or weak trees, so this wattle's days are numbered. I'll remove it in autumn, when its shade is no longer useful.

Borer damage results in the bark dying and falling off in patches, exposing the wood (really bad attacks can ringbark the tree). The "eye" is a borer entry hole.

Close-up of the borer hole, showing the tell-tale sawdust around it. Some people say you can poke wire up the hole to kill the borer, but as the borers are just telling you the tree is in trouble, I think it's a pointless exercise.

On the bright side, it means that I'm just a bit closer to buying an Acacia pycnantha...

Monday, January 5, 2009

Looking Back over 2008

Kris at Blithewold asks
Are you going through your pictures and reflecting on the past year in your garden too? What have you learned? What did you love?

and Gardening Gone Wild is asking people to list their favourite blog entry for the year.

I'm really happy with my post On Contrast, because of the new perspective it gave me on the subject and because the post shows me as still puzzled, still learning, still getting new ideas. There's also a reference to another garden blog, showing the connectedness that is part of why we blog.

What have I learned this year? That even with a long cool spring, it's hard to grow Brussels sprouts here. I have the results, but they are tiny and loose-headed, and, I fear, bitter. I doubt I'll bother with them again.

That I really shouldn't have planted that Parramatta wattle so close to my power lines. Next time I put a native plant in a tricky position, I'll double-check the height from a couple of sources.

The arrival of my Mother's Day present did change my blog, though I'm still a rank beginner in photography. At least I learnt how to work it! Our family trip to Mildura gave me plenty of practice with it; the posts start here.

My favourite gardening-related book this year was Creative Vegetable Gardening, but my favourite writer was Laura Ingalls Wilder, for the breadth of knowledge and interest she presented in her women's column in the Missouri Ruralist so many years ago.

All the best to the garden blogosphere for another year of learning and teaching each other more about our Back Yards!