Thursday, May 28, 2009

Frost Protection

This morning we had the second noticeable frost of autumn. Everything has survived so far, but I am concerned about the impact the heavier frosts will have through winter. Last year I lost a lot of shrubs that were supposed to be frost hardy.

I think some didn’t survive because they were too immature and hadn’t become established in time. Others, like the Grevillea “Ned Kelly” are not the best kind of plant to grow in a heavy-frost prone area – but I didn’t find out about that until I lost one last year; and a second barely pulled through. That surviving plant is now looking very healthy, but it will certainly suffer again when we get those few -6 degree days that are a regular winter feature in this area.

I’ve been trying to think of a convenient way of protecting some of my frost prone plants overnight. I don’t want to use anything permanent because I still want the garden to look attractive during the day. I don’t feel like covering significant parts of it for a complete quarter of the year.

The best idea I’ve come up with so far is to drive two garden stakes into the ground beside it. I’ll put them in at an angle, leaning over the susceptible bush. Each evening I’ll tie plastic sheeting to those stakes to form a lean-to which will hopefully keep the worst of the frost off the plant. I wasn’t sure how to secure the plastic at the bottom to make sure it wasn’t blown around too much in the wind; then yesterday I heard a helpful tip on the Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast that may be adaptable to suit the situation. It was a suggestion for reusing empty drink bottles.
I will try tying 2 litre plastic milk bottles filled with water to the bottom of the sheet, which will hopefully give it enough weight to hold it securely.

All of the sheeting and the bottles can be removed in the morning and therefore return the garden to normal during the day. The stakes themselves shouldn’t be too intrusive and can be left in position over winter.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fruit & Veg


This is the first time I’ve grown beetroot in a properly prepared bed and the difference is clear. It’s taken me a couple of years to give up trying to improve the soil (clay!) in the garden by digging in organic material. I realised that it would take far more compost than I could produce from my inadequate compost bins. So now I have built some borders with concrete blocks to create raised beds.

The beetroot is in the first of these beds and their leaves look much more lush and healthy than in the last two years. I suppose this could have meant that all of the plants growth was in the foliage with nothing of value happening under the ground, but a recent inspection showed that the roots themselves are also growing quite well. After only a month and a half they are already as big as those several months old in previous crops.

Our beetroots are one of the essential vegetables we grow – without them it’s impossible to bake the chocolate beetroot cake that is one of my wife’s favourite cakes to make (and one of my favourites to eat). I’ll try to post the recipe at a later date.

Australian Garlic

I am growing three different known types of garlic. This is the third year that I’ve grown Russian (or Elephant) garlic after buying one head from the diggers club two years ago. From the original crop I saved two of the five heads for replanting and this year and I planted around twelve cloves saved from last years crop. This is one of the milder varieties and is actually a type of leek with very large cloves.
I also bought two heads each of Australian White and Silverskin, both of which have are now displaying short shoots. The Silverskins have only just broken the soil surface but are showing a lot of promise.
We use garlic regularly and have recently used the last of our home grown cloves and had to buy some from the supermarket. Fortunately they had some local garlic for sale for a reasonable price. I intend to use some of that to supplement the named varieties that I’ve already planted and maybe next year home grown garlic may last longer.

For the last two weeks I’ve been listening to The Alternative Kitchen Garden, a very informative gardening podcast from England. One episode helped to clear up a mystery that’s had me puzzled for a while. We found that some of the garlic last year failed to form into individual cloves and grew as a solitary ball and we didn’t know why.
This year when I harvested my Russian garlic I noticed some small growths on the side of the cloves. With a little pressure these broke off reasonably easily. Through The Alternative Kitchen Garden I learned that these are bulbils, and if left in the ground they will develop into the individual garlic balls. These balls, which can still be used as normal garlic, will develop into fully formed garlic cloves if replanted and left for another year.


Broccoli - first sign

This week I saw that the broccoli is developing well with the first tiny head starting to develop. I have two different types planted out. The most developed is one I bought from the nursery as seedlings. The other I grew myself from seed and planted out a couple of weeks later.
Last year it was hard to keep up with the heavy cropping plants. Eventually we ended up blanching and freezing the excess. For some reason broccoli is not as easy to give away to friends as zucchini are.

Vegetable Beds.

Snow peas, beetroot and Russian Garlic to the left.

Broccoli and Mini Turnips in the centre bed.

5 types of onions to the right.

I’m not sure how my bed of onions will develop. I sowed some into punnets in early autumn and planted it out two weeks ago. According to the seed packet they should have been sown in winter. Some of the seedlings didn’t survive after we had a few hot days but I still had enough to plant out a couple of rows. There were two varieties in this planting, both of them red onions, but one was a longer “Florence Red”. I’ve seen something similar in the supermarket that is being sold as “Tuscan Red”. I’m guessing that they are the same thing considering Florence is in Tuscany.

After planting these two rows I decided to take a gamble and I sowed the rest of the bed with a few different onion varieties instead of firstly sowing them into punnets. I still don’t know whether this will work out okay. After a week there is no sign of anything, so patience is required. I did sow them into furrows of seed-raising mix, so I can’t see that the conditions are too much different to being sown into punnets. I’ll probably just have more work to do transplanting a few of those growing too close together when they mature enough to be moved.

Those additional varieties include a brown onion (cream gold I think it was called), spring onions and barletta, which appears to be the same as those the supermarket sells as “salad onions”. They are white and flatter than the commoner round onions. I grew a lot of them last year and they are quite mild.

Tahitian Limes

The limes in the photo are most of this years crop from a dwarf Tahitian lime. After the photo was taken they were all zested and juiced, producing about 2 litres of lime juice and a good amount of zest.
The juice was frozen in ice cube moulds and later bagged, ready for future use in cakes and deserts. Our lemon tree of a similar size is loaded with fruit.

Both the lemons and limes are extremely juicy, have very thin skins and very little pith.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


When the opportunity came for me to have a garden after more than 13 years of living in a Sydney home unit, one plant near the top of my wish list was the Grevillea.
I’d grown a very successful Robyn Gordon many years before and was so impressed with it that Grevilleas became my favourite species of native plant.

My garden now has many different types of Grevillea but unfortunately the larger flowered types like the Robyn Gordon do not survive well due to the heavy winter frosts. As well as the Robyn Gordon I tried similar plants such as “Coconut Ice” and “Ned Kelly” before I realised that the conditions just weren’t suitable.

I still have one very impressive, leafy “Ned Kelly” in the backyard. It barely survived last winter and had to be cut back severely in early spring to remove the frost damage; but eventually recovered well. Now as winter approaches again I’m nervous and don’t hold much hope for it. It is very susceptible to frost burn when the frosts are heavy, and our temperatures can drop to -6.
While it is now a very attractive bush, it has never given a good display of flowers. At the most we’ve had a short spell with one or two, but most of the time it’s had nothing but leaves. But that seems to have been a problem with a lot of our Grevilleas. They are often described as being long-flowering plants but ours, if they flower at all, do so for only brief periods.

My “Coconut Ice” clings to life in my native “bonsai” garden near the front fence-line. While it hasn’t been affected by frost (it is sheltered by some kind of Melaleuca) its roots have been restricted by the concrete-like clay that lies under the raised garden bed. Nothing has thrived in that particular bed, and the “Coconut Ice” demonstrates its distaste for its home by refusing to flower.

This week I have noticed that several Grevilleas have started to bud. They are the sharp leaved types like the G. Rosmarinifolia. One is near our front windows. It is one of the few existing plants that we kept after we moved in. At the time it was a tiny specimen that seemed to have self-sprouted in a crack in the concrete garden edging. It has now grown into one of the most robust plants we have and when flowering is a favourite of the Red Wattle birds.

The pride of our Grevillea collection is the Bulli Princess, a plant that was discovered at the Bulli Grevillea Park near Wollongong. Ours has been here for less than a year so I am concerned about its chance of survival over winter. It is now over two metres in height and about the same in diameter, so it’s a bit too big to shield with plastic. There is a photo of a “Princess” flower in my article “Gardening Progress”; however the photo does not do the it justice. The photo was taken at the Bulli Grevillea Park. Our plant has so far joined ranks with my other Grevilleas in being stingy with its flowering. To date we’ve had only one flower from it.
The experts at the park seem confident that it won’t be affected too badly by frost. They know of one growing in Canberra where the climate is very similar to ours. But then again, survival can also depend on which part of a garden the plant is growing in. Some parts of our garden seem to be more protected from the cold than others.

Grevilleas in my Garden:

Bulli Princess; Fireworks (x2) Poorinda Peter; Longistyla; Ned Kelly; John Evans; Rosmarinifolia “Nana” (x3); Unknown Rosmarinifolia; Coconut Ice; Lady O; Amethyst; Scarlet Sprite;.

There are two more whose names elude me. For some reason the name Molongolo comes to mind for one, which is a very dull rust colour with absolutely no vibrancy. The other is one of the “woolly” Grevilleas; I think a type of “Lanigera”. The latter are quite common in nurseries around this area so I’ll be able to check the name next time I go plant shopping.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Problems due to change of template.

I have recently changed the template of my blog to (hopefully) improve its appearance. Unfortunately the change has affected some of the text leaving large sections of blank space; seemingly deleting some paragraphs.

As I notice these “deleted” sections I try to fix the problem. It is not always easy to find those sections that are missing so if anyone comes across a problem of missing text please let me know.

Gardening "Progress".

I’ve recently been reading about gardening achievements that others have described in their books and blogs. This has made me think more about what I’ve done in my own garden and what I want to achieve in the future.

The reassessment of my gardening “progress” perhaps started a few weeks ago when I came across the book “Velvet Pears”. This in one of those very attractive books full of gorgeous photos interspersed with personal memoir.

The book details the creation of a stunning garden and the restoration of a house, at Tilba Tilba on the south coast of NSW. It’s the kind of story that will inspire any gardener; but also has the potential to plunge them into frustration and despair when they realise their own efforts fall well short of the apparent perfection the book portrays.

Moving on from the book I came across the blogs of two people who have recently moved house and now have gardens that are blank canvases to work upon. Their situation is similar to my own when I moved to my current home almost three years ago. I had all kinds of plans and prior to the move and I enjoyed sketching them out – trying to picture what I could do.

The basic parts of my planned garden started with the desire for roses, native plants (in particular grevilleas) and a veggie patch. I knew more or less which parts of the garden I would dedicate to each and to a great extent I was able to stick to that plan. Unfortunately the reality has not lived up to the dream.

What went wrong?
I’ll ignore the fact that I had no gardening experience – even though my ignorance was most likely the cause of every one of my problems. I now always say that my gardening efforts have been a process of trial and error, with an emphasis on the latter.

The first hindrance to fulfilling my gardening dream has been the block of land. Its width exceeds its length, and on a smaller block I don’t see this as ideal. This makes it more difficult to create the individual areas I wanted. I tend to think a longer block makes it easier to divide a garden into separate “rooms”.
Every part of the backyard can be seen from the windows of our back room so with any attempt to create “separate garden rooms” the joins are clearly visible so the intended illusion of individual secluded spaces is lost.

We also had a large, fixed clothesline right in the middle of the back garden that gave a very “picturesque” view from the back windows of the house. That problem was recently fixed. We removed the old clothesline and put in a new removable one at the side of the house.
Other problems are not so easily fixed such as the soil. It is very heavy clay. When dry it tends to bake like concrete, and I have found that it forms a hard crust about six inches deep, beneath which it is soft and powdery. However, that powder soon becomes thick and sticky when it gets wet.
The soil has caused most of my problems, the most noticeable being an area of natives I planted near the fence-line of the front garden. I attempted to create raised areas of free draining soil for each native plant but the results weren’t good enough. After a promising start several of the plants died and others were uprooted by the wind, having insufficient depth to give them an anchor. The growth of those that remain is very stunted, creating a collection of bonsai grevilleas.

The clay soil also slowed down the success of my veggie garden. I was foolish enough to think I could deal with the clay by digging in a bit of gypsum and composted cow manure. While this did have a slight effect, it was no where near enough to turn the designated area into a veggie friendly garden.

I took similar short cuts with the area I set aside for David Austin Roses. Instead of building up a significant area with decent soil, I decided to restrict my work to improving the soil in and around the planting holes. This did not have the desired effect. While I’ve had reasonable results from the roses, they have not grown as well as they should have done. I spread thick layers of newspaper around the plants to suppress the weeds and I covered this with sugarcane mulch. While this MAY have had an effect on the weeds for a while, our resident blackbirds soon put an end to that effectiveness by turning the paper into confetti as they dug through it in search of worms.

The last of the physical aspects I want to highlight is the aspect of the block. The front slopes towards the south which doesn’t help with frost. Firstly it is sloping away from the low winter sun and secondly it performs the perfect conditions to funnel early morning cold air towards the back of the house, aiding the forming of frost on my veggies and other plants. Last year we lost several plants to frost burn including a couple of grevilleas. I am now tentatively awaiting this years -6 temperatures and hoping they don’t damage my prized Bulli Princess which has grown to more than two metres tall since I planted it last year. It is now too big to protect with a tree guard.

In addition to the physical aspects of the land, my impatience to make a start on the garden has left me with some less than perfect plantings. I made use of the plants we had already purchased in Sydney prior to our move. This included a selection of red salvias and lavenders. I planted these in the first section of garden to be built from imported topsoil. It was along the side fence and I didn’t make provision for any taller screening plants because the salvias and lavenders grew far wider than I’d made allowance for.

I added a few other plants that were available at the time, but apart from a standard rose, nothing in the garden grows higher than about a metre. I am now trying to rectify this by adding a few taller growing shrubs. The first of these is a pencil-like conifer that should grow to 2-3 metres tall but no more than 50cm wide. The second, planted a few days ago, is an Acacia Decora (Western Golden Wattle) which can grow to 3 metres high with a width of 2 metres. Unfortunately the only suitable position for this was beside the standard rose, which will now have to be transplanted when winter arrives.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Tank Installation

More than two and a half years after moving into our house I have arranged for the installation of a water tank for the garden.
The delay wasn’t totally wasted time because we can now get the tank size we preferred without obtaining council permission. When I first made enquiries the maximum size allowed was a 5000 litre. Anything bigger had to be submitted to council for their assessment. That limit has now changed and I can install a 10,000 litre without seeking their approval.
We will also now have the benefit of a Government rebate to assist with some of the cost – and that wasn’t available when I first looked into the tank issue.

According to the company installing the tank, it seems it should be installed in the next week or two. After the tank is in I’ll be able to make a start of the landscaping of the rest of the backyard. Until now I’ve had to leave most of the back untouched to allow access for the tank. When that’s in place I can create garden beds much closer to the house and I’ll be able to do something about a paved area for an outdoor table and chairs. I’m not sure whether the best option would be for paving or for compacted gravel. I think the latter would have a less formal appearance which is maybe what I’d prefer.

The intended tank site.

Vegetable Garden - Approaching Winter

I spent Saturday afternoon trying to finish the border around my latest veggie garden. We harvested the last of the butternut pumpkins the week before and I have enclosed the area where they grew with grey concrete blocks to match two previously created gardens.
Demonstrating my usual DIY aptitude, I built a low, crooked retaining wall. Hopefully next weekend I can correct the mistakes I made and straighten it up. I think the extent of the crookedness is emphasised because the garden is in direct line-of-sight from the back door.

Taking the photo at night helps to hide the shoddiness of my work.

At least now, through trial and (multiple) error, I have a clearer idea of how to do the job right and can hopefully improve the appearance.

I’ll probably make this new garden into a no-dig area, building up various layers of organic materials which will hopefully break down into a reasonable quality soil. The first layer will be a combination of chopped up pumpkin plant and part-ready compost. On top of this I’ll start with layers of newspaper, composted cow manure and straw. Time will tell how successful this approach will be and how long it will take before it’s ready for use.

The beds I created earlier (the borders of which also need a bit of maintenance) seem to be going well. The first was started with beetroot, pak choy, snow peas, and sugar snaps. I also used an area close to the back to plant some excess Russian garlic cloves and the last of a packet of radish seeds. The radishes were picked and eaten over the weekend.

One row of beetroot looks like being the best I’ve grown, but the second row is too close to the pak choy and is being overwhelmed by pak choy leaves.
The snow peas look very healthy but aren’t yet producing many pods. The sugar snaps are a total disappointment, and have barely grown more than 6 inches. I’ve never had much luck with Sugar snaps.

In the other bed we had a very good crop of beans (as mentioned previously) and I’ve now reclaimed part of the bed to grow broccoli. After an initial caterpillar attack the plants are now growing well. A couple of applications of derris dust seem to have solved the problem.

Immediately behind the broccoli I sowed two rows of mini-turnip seeds. On Saturday I saw the first signs of germination, so they seem to be going well. The Kohlrabi seeds I sowed into punnets at the same time aren’t yet showing the same promise.

Sometime soon I’ll have to find somewhere to plant out the two types of onions that are now ready in punnets. I have a lot more onion seed to sow including a new packet of Barletta that I recently received from the Digger’s Club. We had a lot of success with onions last year, especially with Barletta. Unfortunately onions take so long to mature that they tie up an area of garden for several months. Successful management of garden space is not one of my strong points so slow maturing things like onions and garlic can be a problem in making the best practical use of my garden.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Birds in the Garden & in the Bush

Quick quiz.
Which of the following photos was NOT taken in my backyard?

It's quite obvious that the photo of the emu is the one not taken in my back yard. There wouldn't be many bird baths in the bush to attract so many Pied Currawong's to one place to drink/bathe.

I saw the emu alongside the road somehwere between Narrandera and Hay about a week ago. It was the first time I've had my camera nearby when I've seen an emu - and I was also lucky to see it in one of the few places where there was room to pull off the road.
There were a few more further along but they were too far away to get a decent photo and the road was too narrow to stop.

It's been a good week for close encounters with wildlife. On the trip home from Hay we almost ran over a fox, then yesterday on the way home from work there was a mob of Kangaroos in the roadside paddock just outside of the work's security gate.