Friday, December 23, 2011

Bog Garden Planted

Below are some typical bog plants for this part of the world.

Dianella longifolia, the Pale Flax-Lily, which has beautiful blue berries:

Isolepsis nodosa, the Knobby Club-Rush, for the margins:

Mazus pumilio, Swamp Mazus, is a ground-cover with pretty blue flowers a bit like snapdragons:
And then there's the Bracelet Honey-Myrtle, Melalauca armillaris. It's not from my area, really, but the endemic Melalaucas are unsuitable for this position. I need something small, which will take on a tree-shape rather than a shrub-shape, and not scratch people. I'm hoping the position is not too wet as M. armillaris tends to be found in heathlands in high rainfall areas, not bogs. I've built it up a bit but am hoping it will tend to soak up water like other Melaleucas do.
I put a Dianella at each corner and the Melaleuca is on the hillock in the foreground.

The rushes are planted notionally around the edges of my pond, but it had been raining so they are actually in the water at the moment.

I have recycled some concrete edging in the hope that the lower Dianellas won't be washed away.
Another view, with long shadows cast across the pond.

I love the shadows cast on the wall by my Shasta daisies too.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bog Garden Construction Started

There has been more rain since my last post and of course many more activities, so I only managed to pop out to start on the bog garden today.

I dug out a shallow circle in the middle of the triangle today, but there is still so much standing water that only the top edge is visible. I removed some more concrete from it and perhaps the drainage will improve now it's gone.

My plan is to plant each corner with sedge to provide a marker, so nobody walks into it by mistake, and a small shrub in the uphill corner (species undecided as yet). The Sprig has requested edible plants so I'm considering water chestnuts and mint in addition to native plants.

I am also considering building a small wall on the far side so that less driveway runoff enters the area. This bed has been waterlogged for two months, after all. Didn't smell the best when I was digging it up.

I've been digging elsewhere in the garden as well.

This grille is one of the entry points to our vast retention pit, where runoff from our driveway, patio and garage roof collects. Note that the water is very high and the soil is not level with the top of the grille, so we've had overflow around the shaft. This isn't much fun to step in by mistake, and the unevenness of the ground is rather dangerous. I've now made the area surrounding the grille level. There are plenty of uneven areas in the back yard for me to dig up for fill. At the moment the soil is soft enough and the weather cool enough for it not to be a great chore. I had not expected to do this work until autumn.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Preparing for a Bog Garden

We had only 45 minutes of sunshine in Sydney last week.  The local rain gauge says we've had 137mm since the start of the month, more than one-and-a-half times the average.  That's La Nina for you!

There's a new garden bed between my newly-concreted driveway and path.  Well, there would be if I had added any soil to it -- it's just clay and a few weeds.  And 137mm of rainwater.

Our builders came back this week to deal with a few issues and The Geek was solemnly warned that this reservoir so close to the house was a Bad Thing, because the house is downslope. Initial excavations today have revealed some thin concrete inside the bed, which may have reduced the speed at which this water drains into the subsoil.  I am not hopeful that we can keep the area dry in the long term.

 This water is runoff from the driveway.  We are going to have a recurring problem here.  The subsoil is clay and if the soil is saturated, the excess water has nowhere to go.  If I were to mound up a garden bed on top of it, either the soil would wash away or the plants would drown.  I am going to have to allow for temporary flooding but want the excess water to be taken up by plants.  Now how does a frog habitat sound? 

What do frogs need?
  • Most common frogs don't require standing water; temporary ponds are enough
  • If there is a pond, it should have gently sloping sides as not all frogs can climb
  • Frogs need plenty of cover: shrubs, logs, tussock plants and so on
  • They frequent moist, shaded areas and can roam some distance from water sources
 What do tadpoles need?
  • Tadpoles do need some water
  • Tadpoles need water that isn't entirely shaded -- they eat algae, which grows in sunlit water
  • Tadpoles need oxygenated water.  Duckweed and Azolla tend to decrease oxygen levels and will need to be removed.
  • Tadpoles also eat the fungi and bacteria from decomposing plants
  • Tadpoles are sensitive to manure
What do people need?

  • Not to have frogs singing under their bedroom windows.  This location is away from our bedrooms and not too close to the neighbours' bedrooms either.

My plan is to create a dished depression in the middle of the triangle, add some leaf-litter and shelter, then plant the whole area with bog plants.    I imagine clumps of sedges at each corner as markers for people using the paths.  Nobody wants to fall into a bog, garden or not!

 The Australian Association of Bush Regenerators has put together a list of Frog-friendly Sydney plants here. I am particularly interested in these ones, as they are known to grow in my area:

  • Hydrocotyle peduncularis (Native Pennywort)
  • Persicaria decipiens (Knotweed)
  • Knobby Club-Rush (Isolepis nodosa)
  • Common Rush (Juncus usitatus)
  • Mat Rush (Lomandra longifolia)
Stay tuned!
If you are interested in encouraging frogs into your garden, I can recommend the following websites:

  • FATS, the Frog And Tadpole Study Group of NSW
  • The Frogs Australia Network has plenty of information for Australians about frogs. 
  • The Backyard Buddies programme helps children identify andd conserve local wildlife of all sizes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How to Remove a Banana Grove

Last week I started my first renovation of my poor mangled garden. Our grove of bananas is poorly placed, so it was time to chop the bigger trees down and move the suckers (the babies) to a better spot. I had about eight trees to remove: 

Before you start, there are a couple of things to know. The first is that bananas are pretty easy to chop down by just shoving a spade into the trunk repeatedly. More importantly, they are full of sap which stains your clothes irretrievably. Never wear clothes you care about when either harvesting or felling bananas! Look at the copious sap here:

Leave the felled banana plants somewhere out of the way to dry out. I'm planning to use the dry leaves on my potato bed later.

Bananas produce suckers rather like succulents produce pups, so you just have to split them off from the parent with your spade and try not to pull off all the roots when you dig them up.

Try not to plant them too deeply; you'll see a bulge where the soil level ought to be.

As with any transplants, water them in well but do not fertilise. I gave them some seaweed tea this morning; it's thought to reduce transplant shock. Time will tell whether the 35-degree day has beaten the seaweed tea. Fortunately, our next few days should be more comfortable.

I'll probably remove the tea-tree and a bottle-brush a bit later.   At right is a curry-leaf tree, Murraya koenigii, which will probably stay put.  Behind is my potato bed, part of my new vegetable garden.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Annoying!

It appears that the camera batteries are dead, so I can't take photos of my garden for you today. I'll have to leave you with a verbal snapshot:

  • I poured boiling water on some bindies today. Yes, they do prefer compacted ground, so they've been easy to spot. Various other weeds are also colonising our patches of clay. Unfortunately, we've had some Cobbler's Pegs come in. Under the Hill's hoist. Of course.
  • Our cool damp spring has even encouraged some grasses to begin sprouting.
  • This year's vegetable patch will primarily be in my new herb bed. I have tomatoes, cucumber, and pumpkin in already with the herbs, and planted some beans today.
  • My tomato seedlings (three colours of Zebra tomatoes, and 'Reisentraube' and 'Broad Ripple Yellow Currant') are up, but not yet the chillies, eggplant or capsicum.
  • The choko has not been as aggressive as hoped -- yet. Nor have my 'Brandywine' tomatoes really taken off. I'm a bit worried as they won't set fruit once it gets very hot.
  • Lizzie has been laying reliably.
  • The guinea pigs have escaped and are living wild in the long grass at the end of the back yard. They appear quite happy until they see humans, whereupon they look noticeably guilty.
  • The 'Iceberg' rose is flowering its heart out.
  • We finally concreted in our new letterbox today. A pity the front yard is a disaster area!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Garden Visit: Government House

Last week, I had an Elvish Rest Day. Tolkien's elves, you may remember, did not sleep, but rested their minds by thinking of beautiful things. That is what I set out to do.

Government House, in Sydney, is the official residence* of the Governor of NSW. The grounds are open to the public, or so they tell you, but in fact you can only view about half the gardens unless you wish to risk official wrath. I visited with my iPhone last week, so the photo quality is somewhat lower than usual.

Like the gates?

Construction of Government House began in 1836. Due to economic problems, the building was not completed until 1845, though it was in use beforehand. There have been many additions and alterations since; the porte-cochere dates from 1872.

I love the curve in this gate:

Part of a covered way from the House to The Chalet.The Chalet is Federation-era and I suspect the covered walk is too.

On the far side of the covered way was this beautiful border. Very much Sydney in late spring: irises, osteospermums, shasta daisies, sages, anemones and wisteria. The Harbour Bridge is visible in the background.

I also had a good view of the gubernatorial Hills' hoists*.

This glorious verandah on the eastern side is also a late addition, from 1879. The residents at the time found the sun too bright and hot in the eastern rooms. The verandah opens on to a formal terrace with flagged walks and a central fountain.

The terrace, alas, is closed to the public. I would love to have been able to see the plantings.

And what can you see from the terrace? Practically to South Head; the ship is moored at Garden Island Naval Base. Note the change in paving; I'd say this crazy-paving dates from the 1920s. Two Norfolk Island pines flank the path. These majestic trees were used to mark great estates all across Sydney.

This low wall surrounds the terrace. The pots contain venerable Agave victoria-reginae specimens (at least I think that's what they are) -- appropriate for a residence built in Victoria's reign. More Norfolk island pines define another axial view.

Details from a sunny tapestry bed of alyssum, lobelia, red ranunculus, primulas, and perennials not yet in flower. The gardener is a genius!

At one corner of Government House is this scene, common to older Sydney gardens: a Moreton Bay fig (these were preferred to the local Port Jackson Fig, which doesn't have such vast buttress-roots nor such large, deep green leaves), with underplanting of Bird's-nest ferns (Asplenium species) and cliveas. There's an elkhorn up in the fig, too. Cliveas are still the plant of choice here for dry shade.

The western facade: all Gothic Revival. No castles in the colonies! Were they pining for them?

Gothic Revival style was used on Government House because of the building below. These stables for the future Government House were designed by Francis Greenway for Governor Macquarie in 1816, but the Home Office put the brakes on Macquarie's ambitious public works programme before he could commission the main building.

The stables became surplus to the Governor's requirements in 1916 and it has housed the Sydney Conservatorium of Music ever since. The shrubbery above, in the Royal Botanical Gardens, is actually a green roof over some classrooms. It has a beautiful view too.

Front of 'the Con'. The tall cabbage-tree palms (Livistona australis) are endemic to the area. They are often found standing naked around older buildings like this, but naturally grow in mixed wet coastal forests. I am not sure what the shorter palms are -- they seem too slender to be Phoenix palms (Phoenix canariensis) which were widely planted here a century or so ago.

It was lovely to spend a day by myself looking at beautiful things!

* Government House has not been used as a residence for 15 years, though it is used as the venue for Vice-Regal functions; this meant it could be used for many more community events as well. The State Government announced a few days after my visit that Government House would become the official residence once more, in part because it is expected that the next Governor will be a person from country NSW. I hope that means that we will see the Vice-Regal undies flapping on the Hill's hoists again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How It All Began

It's time to look back.

How can one recall all the factors that have led to the conception of a design, then brought forth a renewed building?

I suppose it all began when we bought our postwar cottage. It was well-built and comfortable and, I remember saying, it would be easy to extend from the kitchen/dining area, into the lovely north-facing back yard. Not that we wanted to, of course, but it would be possible.

But we bought in October, so one of the disadvantages of our house did not become apparent to us for a good six months. While the back yard was full of bright northerly light -- in fact, a bit too much light for comfort in summer -- the house did not make any use of it. Here, count the windows on the back yard side.

One for the dining room, one for a bedroom, and the other two rooms getting that premium light are... the bathroom and toilet! And that's the laundry in the middle, shielding the rest of the house from light and heat. It's a lovely house in summer, keeping its back to the sun. There are big windows on the street side to catch the cooling southerlies. Most of the time, it's a cool, well-ventilated house.

Winter is considerably less pleasant. Cool becomes cold, and ventilation becomes draught. The occasional overnight minimum of -3 C won't sound like much to Europeans, until you realise how Australian houses leak air. Every room has wall vents open to the outside -- and you can't close them. Our windows and doors aren't made to be airtight, and our thickest winter clothes are thin by European standards.

Then I found this amongst the building books at work.

This excellent book is still in print, and is a helpful guide to energy efficient thermal comfort for Australians (particularly in our major cities). I don't know how many times I borrowed Warm House Cool House, fascinated by the possibilities which would make suburban housing so much more liveable. One of my first decisions was that if I ever extended the house, I would need a concrete slab on the northern side of my house for thermal mass in winter, and big windows to let in winter sun. But this fit in with the location of the maybe-extension anyway.

In summer, of course, I'd need to have my slab and window shaded with an external pergola smothered in passionfruit vine. But that's what Sydneysiders do with passionfruit plants: if it isn't a pergola, it's a verandah, and it will have a passionfruit vine. (The choko vine goes over the shed and dunny.)

Then the news of the Greenhouse Effect reached the general public. I'd heard of it, of course; John Seymour mentioned it in his 1987 book, Blueprint for a Green Planet, which I had bought. (I suppose John Seymour had better take some credit for this extension too!) The populous parts of Australia were in drought. I never ran out of cloth nappies for the Twig, because the washing was never rained on.

At the same time I was pondering my own wealth. Unlike many Australians, I'm aware that I'm wealthy on a global scale and on the national scale. It seemed to me that to consume water and energy excessively was unbecoming for a follower of a famously homeless man.

Of course, a major extension is also expensive. You can do a cheap extension, but it's usually ugly, made of cheaper materials, uninsulated and generally tends to result in more consumption later, whether because of increased running costs (eg heating uninsulated rooms) or maintenance and replacement of the materials. We didn't want that. We wanted to do something that would be beautiful and long-lasting. There are plenty of cheap extensions in our area as it is not a wealthy part of Sydney.

Like many gardeners, I've been aware for quite some time that water ought to be conserved (and that there are better things to do with stormwater than push it all out to sea), that artificial fertilisers and so on are not healthy foods for soils, and that pesticides and herbicides often create more problems than they solve as they damage biodiversity. I have a basic understanding of soil chemistry. I love fresh air, sunshine and flowers and didn't want to be breathing in too many outgassed chemicals from glues and paints.

Michael Mobbs made me aware of the ubiquity of PVC in the building trade and the possibility of replacing it with other materials. I even considered leaving the town water supply as he did, but decided that the costs and disadvantages were prohibitive.

The ultimate frustration with our house was down to the simple fact that a house that was comfortable for a working-class family in 1946 was not always a good fit for a middle-class family in 2011. The kitchen was built for the rationing period, and for a family who might have risen to an ice chest, not a modern fridge. The back yard was not a place you took your few guests; it was where you grew your vegetables and hung your washing--the home barbecue had not yet arrived in Australian culture. There was nowhere for us to sit outside, really, until a volunteer mulberry grew to shade the home-built carport. The dining table didn't quite fit into the dining room and we didn't quite fit into the lounge room, either.

Eventually, we went to Archicentre and used their flat-fee service to develop a concept plan. We liked it so much that we retained the architect, Peter Katris, for the project. And last night, we slept in our renewed house for the first time.

Here's the short version of the list of reasons for extending as we did:
  • Easy to extend this particular house
  • Allow for modern use of space: outdoor entertaining, computers, etc
  • Provide bigger kitchen and lounge room
  • Provide better articulation to back yard, and an outdoor sitting area
  • Improve thermal efficiency of house: better access to sun and light, and better ventilation control
  • Replace inefficient/non-functioning appliances
  • Improve stormwater management and conservation
  • To beautify the house and maintain the heritage of our street
  • To minimise the use of certain plastics where practicable
I'll post more information about some of our decisions later.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Details from my Kitchen

The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things. (Plato)
I feel like that child today, as I see daylight in my completed kitchen.

The upper cabinets.

Lower cabinetry.

Enjoying the contrast between the E0 birch ply and the red hardwood.

I didn't know my builders were installing this metal edge. I've seen the tiles just stop in some kitchens, but mine have a punctuation mark.

Steel handles from Hafele -- comfortable, strong and recyclable.

Red timber, steel edging, speckled grey tiles, 'Nougat' Caesarstone: I am so pleased by the colour combinations.

The character marks in recycled timber -- nail holes:

A borer track through the recycled timber:

Light glows through the quartz on the bench edge.

The timber shelf between the kitchen and family room. I keep stroking it.

End grain on the timber shelf between kitchen and family room.