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