Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year Spiders

If you're arachnophobic, I must warn you that this post is all about spiders and includes photos.

This year's rain has caused insect numbers to jump, and our beloved spiders are mopping them up for us all over the back yard. Here are a few I found to share with you. All the spiders seem to be from the same family, the Araneidae.

First is the St Andrew's Cross Spider (Argiope keyserlingi), which sits in its web with its legs paired to make a St Andrew's Cross. Pity this one's web runs across the doorway of my garden shed! I have been crouching to go under the web.

Here is its underside, with another view of its neatly-wrapped lunch.

When I first saw this 5mm creature, I thought it was a beetle of some kind (apologies for the photo quality). It was only when I enlarged the photo that I could see the head and front legs. It is possibly a Gasteracantha.

I call this a stick spider, for obvious reasons, but haven't been able to identify it.

Our most common spider is the Garden Orb Weaver (Eriophora spp.), which puts up a new web after dark. We have heaps of them about this year; many more than usual. I suppose that means that we have many more night-flying insects than normal. This one was sleeping the summer day away in a secluded leaf. Doesn't it look peaceful?

If you wish to live and thrive
Let the spider run alive.

Best wishes to everyone for the New Year!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas!


All the bells are gaily ringing,
Birds in every tree are singing;
Let us in the golden weather,
Gather Christmas Bush together.

Christ is born! The angels thunder,
Thru’ the Heavens their tale of wonder,
While we pluck for His adorning
Christmas Bush this hallowed morning.

Christ has conquered Evil’s power
Hear the bells rock every tower
Birds and beasts lift up their voices,
Freed at last the world rejoices.

Onward with triumphant chorus,
Following the road before us,
Singing thru’ the golden weather,
Gath’ring Christmas Bush together.

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you have some time to play in your back yards.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

But in my garden?

While I have been regaling you with photos of Victoria, not a lot has happened here in the garden. It has proved difficult to plant warm-weather crops as the last few months in Sydney have been extraordinarily wet; in fact it's raining right now.

Average (mm)
Actual (mm)
November72.9108.0 (so far)

This is due to a fairly strong La Nina effect which is expected to remain all summer. Our summers are when we receive most rainfall anyway, but we'll probably have longer rainy periods rather than storms. I will also be expecting more moderate temperatures. While that's good for the vegetable garden, the humidity won't lift so often (generally the humidity drops when we get over about 30C), which tends to mean problems with mildew.

The trip to Melbourne, enjoyable as it was, put a hole in my vegetable planting programme. Since then, it's been hard to find time when the soil is dry enough to allow planting. This weekend, fortunately, gave me both moist (not puggy) soil and time. And now my new plantings are being watered in!

Yesterday, in went my six 'Brandywine' tomato seedlings. I am hoping that temperatures will stay cool long enough for them to grow and set fruit; they should have been in the garden at least a month ago! I am planning a second planting of 'Brandywine' for autumn tomatoes -- in fact, I should plant the seeds this afternoon so that they fruit in March.

The tomatoes are now surrounded by basil, 'Mini' cabbages, 'Flame' lettuce and some 'Mini White' cucumbers, and a row of 'Stringless Pioneer' beans.

Today I planted a block of Sweet Corn 'True Gold' underplanted with Cucumber 'Lebanese Mini Muncher' and 'Sugar Baby' watermelons.

Yesterday, I also put in my heirloom beetroot seedlings, and radish 'French Breakfast' near the bolting Florence fennel and 'Tuscan Black' kale. Found that my leeks had survived, which was rather a surprise. They are sheltered by a sorrel clump and a bolting parsnip, and so should cope when it gets hotter.

My quince tree is laden with small quinces. I need remove a lot of them, then bag the rest against fruit fly. Underneath it, however, are some impressive volunteer tomatoes, which also need bagging. I hope I don't damage too many of them!

By all reasonable measures (that is, non-calendar ones), it's summer:
  • The jacarandas across Sydney have passed their peak of bloom
  • Blowflies and mosquitoes have appeared
  • We have heard Greengrocer cicadas in the trees
  • The Ashes have started
  • The air-conditioning at my workplace broke down
  • The shops are full of Christmas things
  • Our Christmas tree went up this afternoon
And I'm off to prepare my Christmas cake fruit right now: it has to macerate in brandy overnight before I bake the cake tomorrow. See you later!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Out of Melbourne

The Geek had only one requirement of our trip to Victoria: we had to go on Puffing Billy! The line winds through the Dandenongs, on the north-eastern edge of Melbourne. Some parts of the trip are through remnant forest: I think these trees are Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) and underneath are Rough Tree-ferns (Cyathea australis).

For some reason the camera filled up with an excessive number of train photos.

Though it was interesting to see the cinders being cleaned out of the box. Old books will often refer to cinder paths, so I presume this is what is meant. The pieces of unburnt coal are a bit coarser than the kind of gravel you see on paths.

My husband is not entirely lost to the joys of nature and took these photos of Waratahs for me (I was too short). I am guessing from the location and size that these garden subjects are probably 'Shady Lady Pink'.

The rich chestnut soil of the Dandenongs was like nothing I've seen anywhere before. Except possibly clinging to brushed potatoes!

Then we drove across northern Melbourne to Ballarat. Now it was the chance for our history enthusiast, the Twig, to enjoy himself to the utmost.

Yes, we did find gold. Some.

Our history fiend was wild again when we visited the site of the Eureka Stockade the following day. Click on the photo to read the famous oath taken by the diggers.

This memorial was erected in 1923 on the site of the stockade.

I was impressed with the gracious wording of the plaque; too often Australian history is seen as a war between "goodies" and "baddies". Black armbands and white blindfolds at twenty paces!

We can also highly recommend Eureka Street Fish & Chips, just down the road from the stockade memorial. After lunch, however, we had to head for Tullamarine. The Geek's iPhone, however, wasn't quite up to the task of getting us there...

We did eventually make it onto the plane, rather than under it.

And so ended our trip to Melbourne.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Phillip and Churchill Islands

Like most tourists to Melbourne, I was very keen to see the Fairy Penguins at Phillip Island, and somewhat daunted to discover how far we had to drive to get there and at how large the island was. It's a pleasant drive around Westernport Bay, however, and we can recommend the Sorrento Fisherman's Co-op for good fish and chips. They also feed the local pelicans at lunch time.

But as the penguins come in after sunset, what do you do beforehand? We spent the afternoon at Churchill Island, nestled on the Westernport Bay side of Phillip Island. It's a heritage farm these days, part historic site, part farm education centre, part nature reserve and part petting zoo. The kids had a cart ride, and saw some shearing and blacksmithing. The sheepdogs showed off their training (apparently a fully-trained sheepdog costs about $5000) by rounding up first sheep, then a pair of turkeys!

And as it was spring, love was in the air. Portrait of a young man trying to impress a young lady:

A number of wallabies live in a large enclosure, and we told there was a mother with her joey, but that she was very shy and we'd be lucky to see it.

The caretaker was quite thrilled when we came upon the mother in an open area and the joey was not only awake, but peeping out of the pouch in the classic manner!

The historic house and its outbuildings and garden fascinated me more than the children, but we all loved this pump-activated fountain made out of old tractor seats.

In the late afternoon we drove down to The Nobbies, the extreme western end of Phillip Island, to visit a new Seal Centre. It would be good to see some seals while we were here, I thought. We went into the Centre, full of interesting information about Australian Fur Seals -- but where were the animals?

It turns out that the seal colony is on this islet. It's only 1500m from shore, and you might be able to see some of them if you just put $5 into one of the telescopes. The same telescopes that you put $1 into everywhere else in Australia.

But The Nobbies are also home to a huge colony of seagulls. Did I mention it was spring?

I'd never seen seagull chicks before. This gull was happily nesting right next to the boardwalk. Perhaps this shouldn't have surprised me, given how assertive seagulls are, but it did.

From the parking area on the north side, we could see the sheltered waters of Westernport Bay.

And at the end of the boardwalk, we could see the south coast of Phillip Island, and the wild waves of Bass Strait.

What a contrast! But it is in Bass Strait that the Fairy Penguins Little Penguins spend a couple of days at a time fishing. Then they come in on the southern beaches and waddle up to their burrows. Photography is prohibited as it hurts the penguins' eyes, but you can watch footage at the Penguin Island site.
I found the Penguin Parade quite magical. For a long time there are no penguins, just the ebb and flow of waves on the sand. Then a wave recedes and magically, there are a dozen little silvery bodies standing where you thought there was only foam. They march together, rather timid on the exposed sand but confident once into the dunes, to their burrows. There are penguin highways through the grass and under the boardwalks, and the birds make extraordinary noises to each other. Each bird has a unique call, and it is by this call that they identify themselves to their spouses, who at this time are already incubating eggs in the hundreds of burrows. I'm grateful that sometimes, we get it right with our wildlife.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Melbourne Botanical Gardens

I knew I wanted to see the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, but didn't realise that I would feel like I hadn't left Sydney!

Bits of the Royal Botanical Gardens, and Centennial Park and Vaucluse House, look pretty much like this. Apparently there was a peculiarly Antipodean muddling of the Picturesque and Gardenesque, and here you have it: meandering lakes and shrubberies, but specimen trees and elaborate borders included as well. (No, I can't quite conceptualise how people muddled Gardenesque and Picturesque together, but they did. It seems to be an Australian habit to pick the bits they like out of disparate ideas and mix them all together without regard for consistency.)

The garden, like the Sydney equivalent, is a lovely place to wander through but not so easy to photograph. Some of the borders were lovely:

How about these contrasts in texture and colour?

I took about half a dozen photos of Echium candicans, with stunning electric-blue spires of flowers. We wants it, my precious, we wants it! And I've seen Echiums growing in Sydney, so I know they can cope with our humidity. Now it's a matter of finding the plain Echium candicans, rather than a cultivar.

With the recent drought the Gardens staff have focussed more on water-wise plantings. I particularly admired this bed, on a steep bank overlooking the Yarra. I would love to know what the red-and-white bulbs are; I don't think they are tulips.

I definitely wanted to see the redesigned "Guilfoyle's Volcano". The famous director and designer of the Gardens had a reservoir built and designed a "volcano" garden for it as a kind of folly. The introduction of town water for irrigation led to the old reservoir being ignored for years, but recent drought has prompted a redesign. The new garden is very modern in style but still reads like a folly because it is so different from its surroundings. I loved it but felt I couldn't do it justice in photos. It is planted with thousands of different cacti and succulents in great drifts, and the red rock-mulch makes it quite startling on a grey Melbourne afternoon. The number and size of Golden Barrel cacti was also quite startling, and how often do you see a mass planting of Jelly Beans?

The reservoir holds water again, this time collected from local stormwater, rather than pumped in from the Yarra as it was originally. The surface has a number of circular planting-rafts floating on it, but they were empty. Enlarge the photo for a better look at the clever fencing. The boardwalk is a double-spiral around the top of the reservoir.

Unfortunately, I had somehow missed out on hearing about the other Botanical Gardens, at Cranbourne. I saw it as we headed for Phillip Island, but there was no time to investigate it. Next time...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Ian Potter Foundation Children's Garden

Some gardens are so full of ideas, so full of joy, that it's hard to take everything in. The Ian Potter Foundation Children's Garden is one such garden, and you know it's going to be good as soon as you see the gate. How many different implements can you see?

Then there are these mysterious creatures outside the gate. They make me think of Patricia Wrightson. The curve on the path is part of a spiral that falls both inside and outside the gate. (By the way, I've never seen Asparagus Fern looking so respectable before -- it turns into a hideous weed in Sydney!)

All the parts of this garden have names. The first thing the boys saw -- and ran straight into -- was the Tunnel, made of Leptospermum laevigatum (Coastal Tea-Tree) saplings planted a metre or less apart and woven together. I presume that the same method could be used on Babingtonia virgata (which has softer leaves) or some of the smaller Melaleuca species. The tunnel was long and curved enough to be fun, and formed the boundary of the Children's Garden.

This fountain is the head of the rill that runs through the garden. I think it's a rather ugly-but-safe thing, but the significance of its "bubbler" style became apparent as soon as children came near. It's fun to put your hand over a jet and spray someone! Also note the bare-bottomed toddler: the garden information says, "For safety and hygiene reasons, children must be clothed at all times." But the Australian tradition of letting small children dabble naked in water continues regardless. The rill, by the way, meanders through the garden to a large pond, which would be very unsafe indeed if it didn't have heavy mesh just below the water surface.

This wonderful ancient redgum stump was extracted from the Murray, where it had lain undisturbed for years. It is raised so children can crawl underneath and look up through the hollow.

Across the campsite from it is the stone bridge/tunnel, part of a "ruin". My children loved this area as there were cut logs that could be moved around and stacked, as well as various hiding places to enjoy.

But I admired The Gorge the most. A path wends through standing basalt shards, surrounded by Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) and tussock grasses. I could imagine playing hide-and-seek here, and aren't the colours wonderful? It evokes the gorges of Central Australia, but uses different species -- I doubt Ghost Gums and spinifex would cope with the Melbourne climate.

Nearby are the Magic Pudding and his mates. And a few more mates. Behind are some Gymea lilies used as a screen, and the popular picnic area.

New Zealand flax, Gymea lilies and what looks like Dianella are mass-planted as screens between the various "rooms". There was a whole area of bamboo, delightful to walk through, and a lookout tower. The only plant that puzzled me was this one. It looks horribly like an Equisetum, but I suppose it can't be.

The children's vegetable garden is off to one side, appropriate as its formal layout does not suit the rest of the space. There is a sand-pit in one of the boxes, and plenty of watering-cans to enable children to "help". I love the way the trellis crosses the beds to form tunnels.

The boys could probably have spent the whole day here and so could I. Now I'm preoccupied with working out how to realise some of the ideas from this garden in my own.
The Ian Potter Foundation Children's Garden is part of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, which I'll deal with in my next post.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mazy Days

If you are going to take a couple of boys on "another boring garden visit", it's always a good idea to have something you know they'll like planned for afterwards. So after our Heronswood visit, we drove ten minutes up into the hills behind Dromana to The Enchanted Maze Garden (except I didn't mention the word "garden"!).

The owners must be nuts about topiary, which is far too exacting for me. They have put in an application to the Guinness Book of Records for the world's longest relief topiary, on their front hedge (I couldn't manage a good photo of it). I had never heard of relief topiary before, but here is an example from within the garden:

The first maze was the classic hedge maze, made even more interesting by the need to find five Buddhas and two Japanese gardens. The second was a labyrinth.

But what was that in the middle?

I think Nessie is wonderful! And I loved the dolphins and waves across the dam.

There are a number of other mazes I haven't mentioned or photographed, as well as some outdoor puzzles and display gardens, even a small kiddy farm. We must have spent about four hours there, but we had already had lunch and didn't see the animals or follow the whole Sculpture Walk. A great place to go if you are concerned about your children being inside too much.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


I'm a member of the Diggers Club, have wanted to see their two gardens for years, and finally I had the chance to see Heronswood. It is a pleasant drive down the Mornington Peninsula. My sons were not overly keen to see a garden, but I knew they'd enjoy it once they were there. The afternoon was to be given over to a place they were definitely interested in, but I'll cover that in a separate post.

Heronswood is a lovely Gothic Revival house, built of the attractive bluestone-and-limestone combination that distinguishes fine old houses in this part of Victoria.

This would have been an imposing entrance in its day, but now, you enter higher up the slope and at the back of the house, where the nursery and shop are. You can barely see the house from the road, due to a luxuriant mixed border and shrubbery.

Further along the new driveway are the children's sandpit and the cafe. My boys loved the sandpit! The structure at right is the framework for a creeper: eventually, there will be a wonderful green tunnel to crawl through. It's fun already, of course.

When I was able to drag the boys away, our first view of the house proper was this appropriately gothic one:

Again, this is the back of the house. The north-easterly aspect would have given the owners an expansive view down the slope of the main garden.

Was there a fashion for Chinoiserie when the house was built, I wonder?

But on to the garden. From the Diggers Club's point of view, the centrepiece of the garden is the formal vegetable garden. It consists of six sectors, here planted with brassicas, lettuces and yellow calendulas (or pot marigolds, as they were once called -- the leaves and flowers are edible). The beds are edged with steel, I think, to help provide that razor-sharp line. I'm surprised they didn't terrace the area first; the slope makes the geometry look wonky, as well as complicating watering.

I liked these sturdy trellises, which partially enclose it.

A nice spot from which to contemplate the fruits of your labour on the upper side of the vegetable patch.

Of course the Diggers Club is not just about vegetables, and the rest of the garden is filled with examples of the stock. The garden drops away into a steep valley, and it cannot have been easy to design, nor indeed to redesign after more than 100 years of gardening on the site. There are a number of ancient trees,including this huge deodar:

Perhaps because of the long history and the commercial requirements of the nursery show garden, I felt that the garden was somewhat diffuse in conception. Some areas were satisfying, but somehow I felt the absence of a unifying idea, or possibly a unifying hand. The symmetrical sections seemed unrelated to the rest of the garden, which rambles informally. Nonetheless, my favourite areas are shown below.

The garden has a couple of overgrown arbours -- well, I think arbours look better overgrown, anyway. So do my boys.

Here's a study in lines and curves; I was rather proud to have noticed them!

And the purple and greyed tones against that Prussian blue:

I thought the iris and wormwood produced a nice example of varied texture with the Berberis(?) adding contrast.

The placement of the arch on the curve of the path seems a certain technique to achieve wanderability.

A final note: the Fork to Fork Cafe at Heronswood bases its menu on what is available in the kitchen garden on the premises,with the meat tending to the regional and organic. I had one of the best meals there that I have ever eaten: with great respect shown for the produce, the result had a lightness and freshness not commonly encountered. My set two courses were well worth the $49 they cost (three courses is $59). The children's menu is made up of simple but carefully cooked dishes: the Twig enjoyed grilled chicken breast with baby carrots and the Sprig gobbled down his pasta with tomato sauce. Highly recommended. I was, however, very lucky to get a meal at all. It isn't mentioned on the website, but bookings are required for the meals. If I had come with a party, the staff would not have been able to fit us in. I am planning to notify Diggers of this omission. The staff were quite aware of it!

In all, a very enjoyable day, lifted by the sublime food at Fork to Fork.