Sunday, October 15, 2017

The gift of patience

Yesterday was an enjoyable reminder of both the joys and frailties of being patient. If all goes well, patience of course can have the best of rewards, but in between being sensible and tasting success a few pangs of anxiety lurk in the shadows. Here's how patience unfurled in our garden, from dawn to dusk.

Early in the day it was apparent that Saturday was going to be 'show time' for our white Louisiana iris, a gift from our friends John and Liz. 

By lunchtime the beautifully creamy looking outer petals were waking up, stretching like a waking sleeper.

And then in the late afternoon Her Majesty decided that she was ready to make an appearance, and to say she "did not disappoint" is to fall a long way short of the delight created.

All Pammy and I knew about this Louisiana iris was John's vivid description of it being "white". I am sure this was kindness on his part ... he must have wanted us to discover for ourselves the fine green filigreed tracery patterning each petal. I really love that green.

Of course we in turn had given John a goodly piece of our blue flowered 'Gulf Shores' Louisiana iris, and the good 'late' news is that John says his new blue ones have been flowering very nicely these last few weeks in his nearby home.

From a gardener's point of view the other interesting thing about our white Louisiana iris is that we didn't grow it in a water garden, as we do the blue ones. We have simply run out of space, as all our water garden irises have been doing so well that we now have two whole water pots filled with blue-flowered plants, and there were so many left over that I decided to experiment with growing these extra plants in ordinary potting mix.

When John suggested we swap Louisiana iris plants I happily agreed, but the only spot I could plant his plant was in the "potting mix" pot. Admittedly I have been an extremely good boy, earning a gold star for diligent over-watering of this pot throughout the year. But it has worked, and our reward has been a splendid one this year.

For anyone keen on giving Louisiana iris a go, I suggest talking to a water gardens specialist, and don't just rely on me. However that isn't going to stop me sharing a few tips!

For an iris planted into potting mix I just used ordinary potting mix. The only trick is that I water the daylights out of it year-round, and I also feed it often too, generally over-doing the feeding rather than under-doing it. If unsure, feed some more!

For an iris planted into a water garden, I make up a mix of 50/50 cow manure and ordinary garden soil (ie, not potting mix). I also feed this rich mix with slow-release granules designed for acid-loving plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons. (Osmocote makes the one I use, but I bet there are others.)

I love this white iris so much I think once the flowering has died down, I might devote one of my water pots to becoming a white iris pot, and leave the other as a blue iris pot. And all the leftovers, which will be blue-flowered, will live in the "potting mix" pot that seems to be working out just fine, even if it's not the recommended method for growing these lovely things.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The trouble with pots

The trouble I have with pots is that I wax and wane in my use of them. My garden seems to go through cycles ranging from "sorry, we need minimal pots" to "more pots please" ... and right now, I'm swinging back to using more pots.

I have only made this situation worse because last weekend I tidied up my spare pots area, for the simple reason that this unsightly spot used to be hidden from view. Alas, recent garden renovations have removed the dense screen of ginger plants that concealed the pots, and so now my pots area is neatly sorted into sizes and types. 

That's where the troubled brewed up. For example, as I stacked the wide, shallow dish-shaped pots, I thought to myself that they really could contain all the mixed leafy salad greens that two little people could need. Removing the greens from the vegie beds into the pots would then provide more space for my preference — other vegies — or Pammy's preference — more flowers.

The trouble with that idea is that I bought that same wide, shallow pot several years ago precisely to grow more salad greens. I did it successfully for a few years, but it was a lot more work than simply plonking the salad green seedlings or seeds into a garden bed.

And that's the trouble with pots. They seem like a gardener's best friend, a real problem-solver ... but then a few months later you realise that they are more work. They need more watering, more feeding and every second year or so, complete repotting.

Has this deterred me from entering a new cycle of "more pots please"? No, afraid not. 

And no, it's not a tragic cycle. You see, I have more time on my hands now that I am winding down into a semi-retired pattern of work. Several years ago I was much busier, and staying on top of the workload of keeping potted plants happy was more of a chore.

Despite the fact that I seem to be a remarkably slow learner at times, as I am now entering a positive "you can do it" phase with pots, here are several perfectly good reasons to grow plants in pots.

Limit the size of spreading plants. In this case, it's a pot containing all the oregano we will ever need. In a garden bed, oregano can spread a metre or more if it's happy. Here in the pot it has to be content with 30cm. All I need to do is cut it back every three months. Another truly rotten spreader is mint, which you should never grow in the ground if you have limited space. 

Keep fruit trees down to a manageable size. Our potted Turkish Brown fig tree is content in its pot, and so is its close neighbour, a potted Thai lime tree. In the ground, both would grow much bigger, and our garden already has an olive, a Tahitian lime and a Eureka lemon in the ground, so there is no more room.

Put kitchen garden herbs within easy reach. You can almost smell this fragrant forest of young basil, and as well as using leaves for staples such as tomato sauces or pesto, just a few torn leaves tossed into a garden salad works wonders. Other nearby pots contain mint, tarragon, chives, thyme, rosemary and sage.

Grow specialised plants in potting mixes designed for them. Our garden has all sorts of interesting plants, such as this colourful succulent, Crassula 'Campfire', planted into pots containing potting mixes designed to suit them. As well as succulents, there are bromeliads, orchids and water-loving Louisiana iris. Each requires its own special mix, but if you give plants the exact conditions they love to grow in, they tend to be much happier and easier to look after.  

And so all I really have to offer with this posting is that pots are an essential part of any garden. Their downside is that they are more work, but their upside is that they can solve all sorts of problems, and even allow you to grow a much wider variety of plants than if you just tried to grow everything in the ground. And for a plant-lover like me, that final point seals the deal.

I'll be growing plants in pots for all my days here. It's just that every now and then I'll scale back on them for a while, then I'll bounce back a year or two later filled with fresh enthusiasm for them. 

This waxing and waning, of de-potting then re-potting, is just another of life's and gardening's steady little cycles.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Old-fashioned hydrangeas

I'm a bit of a sucker for anything that's out of fashion. Whether it's collecting garden gnomes, listening to bands with accordion players, or cooking time-consuming recipes, I'm your boy. 

Out in the garden, I'm often growing something that's supposedly out of fashion, and happily so. In a few weeks from now my cottagey old Nigella 'Love in a Mist' blooms will be out again, and today I've planted hydrangeas, to replace our unruly thicket of ornamental ginger which I reported on in my previous posting.

I like blue hydrangeas, and Pammy asked for a white one, so I bought both. This is the label for the blue ones (I bought three small pots at Bunnings for $13.95 each). 

And this is the far more traditional label for the larger and more expensive ($25) white hydrangea that Pammy wanted, which I found at a local garden centre.

Prior to planting I used the good old "put and look" method of figuring out where to plant each of the new people. The three small blue ones will grow together against the fence (and hopefully block our view of it) while the larger white one's job, apart from looking pretty, is to grow to its full 120cm high and wide and block any views of my less than gorgeous compost tumbler bin and various spare pots. 

Fortunately the blue hydrangeas' labels provided very good information on the plant size and spacing, but I have planted mine a bit closer together than recommended, as I want a dense effect from the hydrangeas to cover up the fence entirely.

After planting them, then watering in with seaweed solution, I spread out a good layer of sugar cane mulch to reduce the rampant weeds and retain some semblance of soil moisture. Besides, I just love the way mulched gardens look.

Once you start renovating, there's a "knock-on" phenomenon that applies to renovations both inside the house and outside in the garden. Fix or change anything, and it immediately makes the bit next to it, or behind it, look bad or weird or at least in need of renovation. The "knock-on" effect is that you are then obliged to do something about the next-door section to your renovation. It's a slippery slope of endless renovations ...

Now, in the case of renovating the ginger patch and turning it into hydrangea land, my previously hidden, messy disgrace of a composting area/pot storage zone is now there for all to see. The shame!

And so yesterday morning I spent a few hours pulling out every pot and sorting them out into this much better, much tidier area. I'm so proud of it that here I am including it in my hydrangea blog posting! 

The trouble is, now I've renovated my ginger patch, and then renovated my pot storage area, it has made me rethink how I am using pots in the garden, and that's what I plan to do a posting on next. 

It never ends!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Rumble in the jungle

We're renovating again. This time it's the lush but messy jungle of gingers ... it has to go. Sorry.

The jungle looks pretty ordinary all through spring. The problem is, once the frangipani tree is bare, and after I cut down the nearby lush lemon grass foliage from its six-foot high peak to a mere six-inch stump, you can see too much of the jungle. For nine months of the year it's almost hidden from sight, but now you can see it too clearly. It is an eyesore of dead brown bits ... lots of dead brown foliage beneath the evergreen canopy. I try to cut it back, but it is a fight to make it look even respectable.

Here's the offending foliage from its best angle, where it almost looks nicely jungle-like under the shade of the frangipani.

And here it is while the lemon grass stalks are just little 'uns in late spring. However, for all of September, October and November, the ginger patch looks messy. It needs a lot of cutting back, and despite that effort it rarely looks very appealing.

My problem was simply that I knew it was going to be an appalling job. I didn't even stop to think about the spiders and other creepy crawly life that might not be very pleased by my intrusion. I just concentrated on how much sheer hard work was involved ... and as it turns out, I was right! 

I'm not young anymore, and it has taken me a few days to cut it all down and dig it all out. Once it's reduced to brown rubble, it doesn't look so big, but don't let that fool you.

The worst part, without doubt, was digging out the roots with a mattock. These formed a dense mat about 3 yards long and one yard wide, and at ground level there was barely any soil. 

And beneath one layer of roots I often found a second, deeper layer of roots. These gingers really know how to build an environmental civilisation.

I scoured my shed for every tool I could find to help reduce the patch to a pile. It was an international effort, with a Japanese trimmer, an Aussie mattock, Swiss secateurs, Korean digger and a Japanese cane cutter.

The electric hedge trimmers removed the top layer of foliage, but didn't have much impact on the canes. The mattock somehow got heavier and heavier each time I picked it up, but in the end, like the forwards in a rugby match, the mattock won the "player of the match" award. I could not have done it without this ancient tool.

This jaggedy-edged scythe is called a Niwashi Shark, and it was brilliant at cutting down the canes almost to ground level. It's a Japanese garden tool, but I bought mine from New Zealand, at, several years ago, and it is a well-made tool that feels like it is going to last the next few decades that will probably see me out here on planet Earth.

A wonderful all-round digging too, my Ho-Mi was fabulous at tilling the soil and discovering extra layers of roots once the mattock had "cleared" a section. It too feels like it will last a lifetime, and I particularly like the way the blade of my old Ho-Mi looks like it was forged in the Middle Ages. I bought mine online from the Gundaroo Tiller,, at about the same time I bought my Niwashi tiller and my Niwashi Shark — I think about 10 years ago, and last time I checked online they still seem to be in business.

Finally, the good news. For my shady 3 metres of ground, I am planting some hydrangeas. Pammy asked for a white one, but I also like blue ones, so we're buying both. The spot where the hydrangreas will grow will be shady for most of the time, but exposed to the sunshine in late winter and early spring, so I hope it suits them.

I'm glad I've done all the heavy digging to get rid of the ginger patch now. Five years from now I don't think I'd be physically up to the task. It almost killed me this time round.

I kind of like the idea of returning to growing old-fashioned hydrangeas in my dotage. More my pace these days.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Small starts

Last week, for just a few moments I almost succumbed to a ridiculous thought, but common sense intervened and I changed my mind. 

What was the ridiculous thought? I momentarily felt guilty about starting off some new crops from seedlings, and for just a minute or two headed for the seed stands at the garden centre, instead of wandering outdoors to where all the seedlings were.

Fortunately, a cluster of sensible brain cells rallied and told me to stop being a fool, go buy those nice, healthy seedlings and save yourself four weeks of fussing over seeds in punnets. And that's what I did. I bought a punnet of four Lebanese zucchini seedlings, and a punnet of four Lebanese cucumber seedlings. And now they're planted and they look great.

Growing crops from seed is fun, but you should never feel it is compulsory. I enjoy doing it partly because of the pleasure of growing something from seed, and also partly because the only way to grow rare or unusual varieties is to start them from seed. Your basic average garden centre has an extremely limited range of seedling varieties to choose from, while an Internet full of online seed catalogues has hundreds, sometimes thousands, more seeds to choose from.

Fortunately for me, I like the smaller, light green Lebanese zucchini very much, and there was a perfectly healthy punnet of four of the things just begging to be planted. As many people like to say these days, it was a no-brainer.

Planted 60cm apart into soil enriched with compost and chicken poo. A layer of mulch, some seaweed solution to water them in, and the job was done in no time.

However, the next photo shows a bunch of baby seeds coming up, and that's because this is the best way to grow some plants. This one is yet another crop of chervil, a delicate herb that looks a bit like downsized parsley, with a lightly aniseedy flavour that goes beautifully with vegetables such as zucchini.

Chervil is a relative of parsley, and like parsley it prefers to start life in the garden as a seed sown directly where it will spend its life. Chervil, parsley and several other common vegie and herb crops absolutely hate being transplanted from a starter pot to the ground. It can be done, and is regularly done, but the plants are rarely happy about it.

Speaking of plants which are related to each other, this Lebanese cucumber seedling does look remarkably similar to the zucchini seedling at the top of this page, and that's because both plants are cucurbits. There are almost a thousand cucurbit species, and the best known other cucurbits to ordinary gardeners are all the pumpkins, melons and gourds. 

Cucumbers like to twine and climb, so I have used five slender bamboo stakes to form a teepee for the cucumbers to climb up. The bamboo stakes were quite long, and they all poke about 15 inches (38 cm) down into the soil. The first really windy day will test how strong the structure is, I guess.

I have planted all four seedlings, which is too many, so I plan to let them race up the teepee, and whichever seems the healthiest plant will be the one that remains.

And so here we have some small starts, two from easy-peasy seedlings, and one crop from seed. It certainly is much less work than getting all three crops started from seed ... a much more sensible way for an old gardener to go about a bit of amateur backyard farming.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Minty goodness

Good. Our native mint bushes, or Prostanthera, are putting on their first spring flower show as mature plants, and they're a lovely sight. And, if you get up close to them, they're a lovely smell, too, as they get their common name from their mint-scented foliage.

We planted three of these as small things in the spring of 2015. Last year they put on a small show, but the plants hadn't really grown to full size by that stage. So 2017 is their official backyard debut, by my reckoning.

Here's two of the three bushes. The one on the left has been the "struggler" of the three. It's held up by stakes and a flexy soft cord attached to the low wall behind. The one on the right, which is the middle of the trio, is the star and has actually been cut back a few times already, as it is monstering the hanging baskets behind it.

Speaking of hanging baskets, here they are doing their thing behind the mint bushes this morning. 

The red geranium flowers belong to our prolific 'Big Red' geranium which also grows like heck down at ground level. In the centre of this shot are two pink flowers of our poorly performing ivy geraniums, which were the original inhabitants of this line of hanging pots. Out of six ivy geranium plants only two thrived, so that's when I decided that whacking in some cuttings of Big Red would fix things, which it did ...

Meanwhile, back at the mint bushes, I blurted out to Pam my main fear at this stage, and it's this. More than once in my 26 years of gardening here, I have been through the cycle of
A. Plant natives as babies, watch them grow well, promising much ...
B. Enjoy superb flower displays for a year or two, or maybe four or five ...
C. Then, without much warning, the native plant suddenly keels over and dies.

I know it's a pessimistic note to finish on, but there, I have gone and said it. I love native plants very much but experience has taught me to enjoy them, but not get too attached to them, either.

Right now, however, I'm really enjoying these beautiful mint bushes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From disgraceful to graceful

While I spend an inordinate amount of time tending to my backyard, I am afraid I am guilty of neglecting my front yard. It's so easy-care that I don't water it, and feeding is a once-a-year thing. And guess what? It looks neglected ... in fact parts of it are a disgrace, and so recently, at Pam's prompting, I've given part of the front yard a much-needed makeover.

Here's a photo of how it looks, if you're a pedestrian in our street. That enormous blue-grey thing is a "groundcover" Cootamundra wattle (Acacia baileyana) that doesn't like to be confined by walls and so has grown into a 2m tall, 4m wide spreading monster. I have to cut it back regularly. However, the truly disgraceful thing is what was growing under the wattle: weeds, lots of weeds.

While I am not averse to publishing weed photos on my blog, it's usually done in the interests of either "what weed is that?" or "gosh I hate this weed". Today's weed photo is a simple 'hang your head in shame Jamie" shot of a neglected, weedy patch that's largely out of sight ... well, out of sight if pedestrians don't look as they walk by.

Two hours and eight bags of wood chip mulch later, it looked like this. Much better.

Pammy's great idea was to grow ferns under the dappled shade of the wattle, and so I went fern hunting. The little pots at the front are from Bunnings, Australia's hardware/homeware/garden warehouse behemoth retailer. The taller things at the back are from a local old Greek guy who sells all sorts of plants from his backyard. These look like fishbone ferns, they're considered a weed by many but they almost certainly won't die no matter what. 

I also found a great source of ferns at a little garden centre in South King Street in Newtown. The staff there were lovely, knowledgeable and I wish I had bought everything from them. If you live in my Sydney inner-west area, do check out this nursery. It's near the intersection with Alice Street, you can't miss it. Nice place to shop.

Next I adopted my old boss, Don Burke's great garden design/planting principle of "put and look". All you need to do is get all your plants in pots, and put the pots where you think they should go, then see how they look, then rearrange them until you've got the spacings, heights and other factors sorted. Then go around and plant the pots where they are. Works a treat.

Here's how it all looks when planted out. I'm not sure how big everything will grow, but that doesn't bother me much, as I'm also not sure which ones will survive and thrive, and which ones will die. I know the fishbone ferns won't die ...

... and I am also confident that the bird's nest fern (the one at the back with the wider foliage) will also not die and will probably grow quite big, at least 1m in all directions, up across and sideways.

As soon as I saw the label on this little guy "Macho fern" I had to have it. Whether it lives up to its tough-buy name is another matter, but I bought two and so I'll let them duke it out with the elements over the coming summer.

While I have tried to choose ferns with different shapes and forms of foliage, for variety, I decided a bit more foliage colour would be a welcome addition. Now, this next photo below is of my "hopes" not of what I planted. Projectionist, next slide please ...

Regular readers of my blog with excellent memories might recognise this Begonia maculata and its wonderful spotty foliage (and pretty white dangling earrings of white blooms) as it was my Garden Amateur Plant of the Year for 2015. Sadly, these were its glory days when it loved its first Sydney spring and summer, after being planted out as one of Pam's ex-office plants that grew too well under her care. The last two winters haven't been kind to it, but it is still alive, and so my brilliant plan is to take numerous cuttings from the parent plant and hope that a few of them grow on to become a chip off mum's award-winning block.

And so this is how they looked yesterday. A bunch of cuttings (there are several more). To cover all options I have some cuttings in pots in a mini greenhouse, I have also shoved several more straight into the front garden soil, saying a hearty "good luck" to them all. And a few more will sit in jar of water, in the hope that roots will sprout that way (my Googling of begonia propagation says it's a good bet).

As well as adding a dash of begonia magic, I've raided our plentiful supplies of Spanish moss, and now the craggy undersides of the wattle are festooned with thin tresses of grey Spanish moss. Good luck to them, too, I say.

So my job is to break a habit of the last several years and actually get out there into the front garden much more often, turn on the hose and make sure all the ferns get a goodly drink. If it all goes well, I am sure I will provide an update in a few months' time. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Signs of recovery

"It's not a garden, it's a hospital ward." That's how one friend described her garden full of sick plants, and I have thought of her during the last few months while I have been nursing our sick Pieris japonica back to health. Beneath my veneer of seeming to be an organic goody two-shoes, I tend to be quite a ruthless gardener. Sure, I'll tend to unwell plants for a while, but if they seem like a hopeless case, then out they go.

But not the Pieris. It's one of "Pammy's plants" and so I am duty-bound to do my best with it. She brought it home one day, from a local florist's shop, and handed it to me to add to our garden. Nice plant, but deep down I suspected it'd be trouble ... 

Here's the patient in full bloom this morning. The glossy green leaves look pretty healthy, too, so what's the problem?

The other half of the plant is dead. In fact a few months ago I cut off the whole back half of the plant as it was dying rapidly. This left us with an ugly, lop-sided patient to care for, but the good news is that there are signs of hope!

Here's the lush bronze hope-inspiring foliage sprouting all over the back half of our Pieris.

The great thing is that there's not just one or two new sprouts — the whole plant is covered in new baby growth. The acid test will be how the plant goes through the next Sydney summer, which I suspect will be a hot and dry one.

When Pammy brought the Pieris home last year I knew I was in for a challenge to keep this plant happy. You will occasionally see healthy Pieris growing in Sydney gardens, so it's not impossible, but my starting point was knowing that this plant prefers cooler climates than Sydney's. Pieris does better further south and up in the mountains.

So I decided to keep it in a biggish pot, and place the pot in a warmer spot in winter, but a cooler spot in summer. Whatever I did was wrong, as half the plant died off over the summer. I cut out all the dead bits, then moved the pot to a sunnier spot for the winter, and plied the plant with seaweed solution every four weeks. The seaweed (eco-seaweed) is not a fertiliser. It's a plant tonic that encourages roots to grow, and generally lowers stress in sick plants. 

I also kept up the water to the pot, without water logging it, and finally it started to show some growth as the spring warmth arrived.

One tip with sick plants is NOT to feed them if they are not showing any signs of growth. Just keep adding seaweed solution. Once you see some positive signs, like new foliage, then start a gentle feeding program, and only then.

So I've given the pot a single dose of liquid organic-based feed (Powerfeed, mixed up and watered in via a watering can), and have followed that up with some slow-release fertiliser pellets that will trickle down food over the next three months. Once the summer comes on, I'm looking for a spot that gets morning sun but shade for the rest of the day.

Wish me luck. As it's Pammy's plant I am trying extra-hard to keep it happy. I feel like I'm a doctor with a tricky patient. This is not a good space for a gardener to occupy but sometimes you have to nurse plants back to health. 

I'm trying everything. Pam's mum, Val, says she talks to her plants and she's a green-thumb with two verandahs full of happy plants. So I'm going to start talking to the Pieris, just in case Val is right.