Sunday, March 29, 2009

Minibeasts are Wildlife Too!

A week ago, I was pondering the fact that it had been ages since I'd seen a stick insect: had the chooks eaten them all? Then a few days later, I spotted this handsome creature in our laundry. He was about 20cm long and 2-3mm wide. The biggest stick insect I've seen in Sydney was about twice that. Stick insects like thick, undisturbed foliage to hide in, so you tend not to find them in manicured gardens. I'm ridiculously pleased with this shot (an utter fluke, of course; I am a point-and-click girl).

Anyway, this post is part of my offering for this month's Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop, on wildlife in the garden. The other post is about a dragonfly.

We are too deep in suburbia here to see mammals like wombats, possums or antechinus, but there are minibeasts in every garden. Some are extraordinarily beautiful. They don't need much looking after, but minimising pesticides and providing water can help. See how many you can find in your back yard!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Recognising Autumn

How do we recognise a change in season? I note that North American garden bloggers count Spring as arriving at the Equinox. Autumn officially starts here on the 1st of March, and if you go by your senses, it arrived quite close to that date.

We have had some rain, in fact it is raining now. The dew is heavy on the grass, the air cool in the mornings. The sky is no longer deep blue, but electric blue, and there are interesting clouds, a change from the fair-weather cumulus or harsh clear skies of summer. Today, we have cirrus. The light is softer and shadows bluish.

The grass is cool and bends under my feet, no longer sere. The pumpkins are waxing, their vines waning, and it is the time to sow all sorts of things. We planted our sweet peas before St Patrick's Day, as is traditional here. I could be planting, but it's the wrong time to do it in the lunar calendar, so I will hold off a week. In the Blue Mountains, the peach season is definitely over and the apples are ripe (we picked up some delicious jam and a few bags of apples on a trip last weekend). My Scribbly Gum has been flowering.

How do your senses tell you that the season has turned in your locality?

I ask because I have been reading a beautiful book, D'harawal Seasons and Climatic Cycles*. The writer is Frances Bodkin, a knowledge-holder of the D'harawal people, whose traditional lands probably include Chookie's Back Yard. Originally written for children, the book intersperses Law Stories, such as "How the Parrots Got Their Colours" with information on the daily, yearly, and longer weather cycles. I have seen, heard and felt some of these cycles myself.

The D'harawal count six seasons:

Ngoonungi, Time of the Flying Fox: Spring, which is a short season in Sydney, about September-October. The waratah and many other flowers bloom and flying foxes gather. Mating season of many smaller marsupials. Shellfish form a large part of the diet. As the whales migrate down the coast with their calves, important ceremonies are held to wish them well.

Parra'dowee, Time of the Eel: Begins with the flowering of Acacia binervia and covers roughly October to December. The freshwater eels begin their journey to the ocean to mate and die. It is also mating season for egrets, turtles and lace monitors. Fish and prawns are a large part of the diet.

Burran, Time of the Kangaroo: The hot season, January-February, begins with the blooming of Acacia implexa. The staple diet is fruit, seeds and tubers. Meat and fish are forbidden, partly because such food spoils so quickly and partly because it is mating season for kangaroos and wallabies.

Marrai'gang, Time of the Quoll: Mating season for quolls, roughly March, April and May. A wetter time of year. Quolls are quiet and secretive, except during the mating season, when they call to each other. Lilly pillies, good eating, drop from the trees. Young male animals may now be eaten, and fire prevention work is undertaken. Golden orb spiders spin their beautiful strong webs.

Burrugin, Time of the Echidna: The Eucalyptus tereticornis flowers, and the weather is cold -- this season covers June and July. Shellfish is forbidden (in fact, Sydney Rock Oysters are known to be poor eating at this time of year, as it follows spawning). As the Gymea Lily flower-stem begins to redden, women sing the whales north to their calving grounds. Nesting season begins for many birds, including the magpie, which can be aggressive in protecting its nest.

Wiritjiribin, Time of the Lyrebird: The days are growing longer, but the weather is still cold, and the winds of August begin as the Acacia floribunda flowers. The lyrebird builds his dancing mound and sings his mating song. It is also mating season for antechinus, pelicans, booboook owls and willie wagtails. As this season ends, the winds end with it and the scented Acacia decurrens blooms.

The D'harawal perceive a Mudong Cycle, roughly twelve years long. It has eight phases, which are of variable lengths: hot and dry, then cooler and wetter, cold and wet, warm and wet, hot and wet, cooler and drier, cold and dry, warmer and drier. Could this be related to the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and similar effects?

There is a Moon Cycle, about twenty years long. At its start, the moon rises at its southernmost point and food is plentiful, so the great Law Gatherings are held. There is also a Fire Cycle about 60 years long, with the peak being a time of terrible bushfires. I wonder if we are passing through that peak now?

The longest known cycle is called Garuwanga (Dreaming), and has four seasons, the Time of Fire, when sea levels rise until South Head is an island; the Cooling Time of Renewal, when sea levels fall; the Time of Cold, when the seashore is three days' walk east of South Head and the ground is frosty every morning; and then the long Warming Time of Renewal when the seas rise slowly again. The entire cycle lasts about 12-20,000 years.

The knowledge-holders all believe that there is a far larger cycle that acts upon the Garuwanga Cycle, because the variations recorded in the stories (for the D'harawal remember at least four Garuwanga Seasons of Cold and four of Fire) indicate that the severity of Cold times has been decreasing, while the severity of Hot times has been increasing.

Beautifully illustrated and easy to read, everyone in the Sydney Basin should buy a copy to extend their understanding of our environment and of indigenous culture. A poster of the annual seasons is also available.

*Bodkin, F. & Robertson, L., (2008). D'harawal seasons and climatic cycles. F. Bodkin & L. Robertson, Sydney.
ISBN: 978-0-9804810-1-3

Thursday, March 19, 2009



We'll be keeping Earth Hour for the second time this year. What about you?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

How To Grow Vegetables from Seed: After Germination

Here are the two pak choy punnets. The one on the left is the forgotten punnet, a few weeks old, and the other was planted last week. Isn't it wonderful to see tiny plants appearing in your punnets?

They had dried out a bit this morning, so I gave them water with a soluble fertiliser. Don't use soluble fertilisers on seeds: seeds have enough nutrient for germination, and too much nutrient does more harm than good. Appropriate warmth and light are more important than fertiliser, anyway.

The next step is to thin the punnets so that you have one healthy seedling in each cell. Planting several seeds in each cell allows us to choose the best.

Make sure the growing medium is moist. If it isn't, you may find too much medium -- or even the wrong plants! -- comes out when you pull the unwanted seedlings. Moisture also minimises root damage and shock to the plant you want to keep.

I use my fingers to thin seedlings, but you might prefer tweezers. I press a finger into the seed raising mix when I uproot a seedling, to prevent too much root damage to the others.

Any that are sickly-looking should go. Check for any plants which have stems thinning near the base and pull them. Look for a sturdy, upright stem. If you still have a choice, leave the one that is nearest the middle of the cell.

Feed the thinnings to your guinea pigs, chooks, worms or compost heap. Actually, you could even eat these ones yourself, though I suggest washing them first...

Here is the final result of thinning, with a single healthy seedling left in each cell. You might notice that one cell contains no healthy seedlings; that is the price of neglect. Now, I need to wait for the seedlings to grow to planting-out size.

Previous posts in this series are Ingredients and Method and Mistakes.

Friday, March 6, 2009


I found this beautiful dragonfly caught in a spiderweb outside my back door last week. It was a huge as well as beautiful one, probably about 8cm long. Each eye was about a centimetre across! I haven't been able to identify it yet. The two photos below show its beautiful markings, reminiscent of Aboriginal art.

I had never seen this type before, so I freed it. While the spider concerned does need to make a living, she is of a good size (she's a Garden Orb Weaver) and I am sure can cope without quite so much dinner! Below you can see traces of web still wrapped around the wings. Fortunately, the dragonfly was able to break the strands after it had had a rest on a nearby rose-bush. If you are wondering where the spider was, she comes out after dark to make her web and goes to bed before light. She leaves the web up so she can have a good meal before she makes a new web the following evening.

This post is part of this month's Garden Blogger's Design Workshop, on Wildlife in the Garden.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How To Grow Vegetables from Seed: Method and Mistakes

Start by filling your punnet almost all the way to the top. Tap the punnet to level the seed raising mix. Press a finger lightly into each cell to make a hollow for seeds to sit in. In larger punnets, you can make grooves -- otherwise, the seeds tend to roll to the edges of the punnet.

I'm right-handed, and I sow seeds like this: pour seeds into the palm of your left hand. Pinch a small number of them between your right finger and thumb. Roll your fingers over a punnet cells, enabling 3-6 seeds to drop into each cell. Why so many seeds? Some won't be viable, and some won't produce strong plants. Later on, you'll pick out the seedlings you don't want, and just keep the strongest ones. Unlike seedlings, seeds are cheap, and you get lots in a packet! How many broccoli seeds can you see in this punnet cell?

Mistake 1: Burial. One of the commonest mistakes is to cover your seeds too deeply. The little seeds we put into punnets are generally the kind that land on the ground in vast numbers near the parent plant. They don't need, nor want, a heavy blanket on their heads. Sprinkle some seed raising mix to cover the seeds up, but no more than you need.

I planted up a punnet of snapdragons yesterday. The seed was like dust, and the packet said to just sprinkle the seed on the surface. Even seed raising mix can be too heavy for such tiny seeds.

Mistake 2: Drowning. I stand my punnets in trays, and water from below. When the surface of the punnet is dry, I add water to the tray. It is OK for the punnets to stand in water for a few days at the start. When seedlings emerge, however, they are susceptible to mould ("damping off"), so make sure you only water seedlings when the seed raising mix is starting to dry out.

Now for some recent mistakes of mine:

Mistake 3: Invoking Phil. These beetroot seedlings only get morning light, and that's not a big problem -- the sun is terribly strong here at this time of year. The problem is that I haven't turned the punnet around to keep the seedlings upright, so they're all lopsided. (After I took the photo, I turned them around, and they look fine today.)

Mistake 4. Complete Forgetfulness. I really truly thought I'd taken all the planted-up punnets out of the shed last week and put them on my porch...

These are pak choy. The residual moisture in my rather dry seed raising mix was enough to get them going. Good germination rate, you may notice. The seedlings have reeeeeally long stems because the only light source in my shed is the east-facing window... across from the bench!

The previous post in this series is Ingredients and the next one is After Germination.