Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Silverbeet, Swiss Chard, Spinach

Silverbeet growing next to my compost bin

One of the first cookbooks I purchased as a College student was a second hand copy of the Moosewood Cookbook which was full of cheap and healthy 'Whole Food' recipes, many of which were based on brown rice and vegetables. So I learnt to make 'Spinach Ricotta Pie', Spanakopita, Calzone and 'Spinach and Rice Casserole'. Only recently I have discovered that the stems of Silverbeet can be used and cooked in a most appealing way. Stephanie Alexander in The Kitchen Garden Companion gives fantastic recipes for 'Silverbeet Stem 'Chips' as well as 'Silverbeet Stem Gratin'. Last night I made the Spanish version of braised Silverbeet (Acelgas Rehogadas) which uses both stems and leaves. The stalks are slowly sauteed with garlic and onion for 30 minutes and then the torn leaves are added with half a teaspoon of turmeric and some water and cooked for a further 30 minutes. At the end of this time, some fried bread and a tablespoon of sherry vinegar are added to thicken the mixture and bring out the flavour.At first I thought the cooking time was excessive but it really does result in a most wonderful dish. An Italian version of this is actually included in the Moosewood book and forms part of an Antipasto plate to be served hot or cold.
Silverbeet is one of the easiest vegetables to grow as long as it has some well composted soil and gets plenty of water to keep the leaves healthy. It can be grown in a pot on a balcony and does well in a semi shaded position. Leaves are harvested by pulling down and twisting the whole leaf to the side. This is a vegetable which can remain productive over a long period of time and it is well worth growing a couple of plants regardless of how small your garden space is.
Based on recipes from the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca , New York
Book published by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cupressus macrocarpa 'Greenstead Magnificent'

Cupressus macrocarpa 'Greenstead Magnificent'

This is a far cry from its wild parent, the Monterey Cypress of Southern California. It is a fascinating miniature clone of the variety 'lambertiana' , grafted onto a short trunk to better display the soft weeping foliage. It really works well as a container plant or as a specimen in a raised bed so as to better appreciate its form. Unlike many conifers, this one is fast growing, retaining dense foliage habit without trimming and withstanding coastal exposure or cold inland climates as well. Here it has been underplanted with the lovely blue flowering ground cover Convolvulus mauritanicus which produces masses of saucer shaped flowers over a long period.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cupressus glabra, Arizona Cypress

Cupressus glabra 
 Arizona Cypress
This lovely silver -blue foliaged conifer is one of the hardiest and most easily grown, tolerating coastal exposure, hot dry conditions as well as cold winters down to minus 20C. It is perhaps not as popular as other Cypress as it tends to be fairly open in growth habit making it less suitable for use as a hedge. It will grow to about 8 to 10 metres and forms a great background tree to a Mediterranean style garden with Olive trees, dry loving perennials and succulents. It is native to Arizona and N. Mexico.

Cedrus libani 'Hedgehog'

Cedrus libani 'Hedgehog' 
Miniature Cedar of Lebanon

The majestic Lebanese Cedar appears on their national flag so it is hard to believe that this miniature form is variety of that tree. It is very slow growing and makes an ideal bonsai especially if kept on a raised table so that the soft weeping blue foliage can be admired. Over ten years it will grow to 20cm high by 75cm wide. Expect to pay up to $50.00 for this little beauty.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Palm Trees in Leipzig

St Nicholas' Church Leipzig
(St Nikolaikirche)

One of my favourite pieces of music at this time of year is J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts Oratorium) which was written to celebrate the six feast days of Christmas and first performed at this Church and St Thomas' in Leipzig in the winter of 1734/35. St Nicholas' was built in 1165 and partly restored in 1784-97 by J.F.C. Dauthe and A.F. Oser . The interior is inspiring for all plant lovers as the columns are magnificently decorated with swirling leaves and flowers.

J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Rene Jacobs harmonia mundi 2004

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica', White Spruce

Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica' 
 Dwarf Alberta White Spruce

This is by far the most popular tree at this time of year and its neat conical shape makes it a favourite to grow in a large pot, in the garden or to bring inside. It is a fantastic plant in the garden for use as a specimen where a formal element is required such as close to the house entrance or as a focal point amongst more lax growing perennials. Because it is slow growing, advanced specimens can be expensive to buy but there are always plenty of small ones available. It can be difficult to grow here on the coast as it does not like humidity which can encourage infestations of Red spider mite. You know when these mites have attacked it as small brown patches or "dieback" starts to occur in isolated spots which spoil the overall appearance. This small growing form was originally found in the wild. Its larger growing parent is pictured below.

Decorative Cones on the White Spruce, Picea glauca

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Picea pungens 'Fat Albert', Blue Spruce

Picea pungens 'Fat Albert'
 Dwarf Colorado Blue Spruce

Uncle Bert is just mad about Conifers and rockery plants, perhaps partly due to his Austrian heritage and the fact that he lives in a region which can have snow and ice as a part of the winter scene. Conifers are very much part of the festive season and many a tree is being decorated with tinsel and lights at this very moment somewhere in the world.
The blue spruce is a native of the mountains of the western United States and can reach a height of 30 metres (100ft) The fine and brilliantly coloured foliage is thick and prickly and carried on stout orange branches.'Fat Albert' is one of the small growing cultivars which develops a perfect pyramidal form to 2 metres high by 1.2 metres wide after about ten years. You have to be patient when growing some of these and or be prepared to pay top dollar for advanced specimens. Although these conifers are tolerant of dry soils they are more prone to attack by Red spider mite under these conditions so giving it a bit of extra water during dry spells is recommended.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sanguisorba officinalis 'Tanna'

Sanguisorba officinalis 'Tanna', Burnet, or Pimpinela

Internationally renowned nurseryman and planting designer Piet Oudholf selected this form of the 'Great Burnet' and named it for his wife Tanna. In its wild form it is found in mountain meadows of central and northern Spain and in the Pyrenees of France. In Spain and Portugal it is known by the common name of Pimpinela. In Summer, from basal rosettes of pinnate leaves rise tall leafless stems carrying many oval red flowers. The flowers are subtle and are best suited to a meadow or wild garden style planting teamed with grasses, a style much celebrated by Piet Oudholf. I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed by it, as in our harsh Summer daylight it disappears into the landscape appearing wispy and weedy without a lot of impact.
However, both it and its smaller cousin Sanguisorba minor, the hardy herb Salad Burnet, have a long history as medicinal plants and were used on the battlefields of long ago to staunch bleeding wounds. Salad Burnet has delicate lacy foliage and grows no more than 30cm. The leaves have a slight cucumber flavour and can be added to salads or used in drinks such as a Pimms or a cooling whiskey-based cocktail.
Both of these plants are very cold hardy and Salad Burnet will even poke its head through a light fall of snow, a timely reminder for those in the Northern Hemisphere who are looking for a few home grown salad greens at this time of year.
2017 update I no longer grow this plant.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Christmas Beetle, Anoplognathus pallidicollis

Christmas Beetle
Anoplognathus pallidicollis
At dusk, the Christmas beetle can be found dive bombing outdoor lights and sometimes making it indoors where it performs similar acrobatics around the room.They are easily recognized by their bright metallic gold exterior and when captured make interesting specimens to show children. These beetles are members of the scarab beetle family and are probably more familiar in their larvae stage as curl grubs or lawn grubs. As they are just below the soil surface feeding on roots at this stage of their lives ,they are favourite food of Magpies which you often see intently gazing at a patch of lawn before making stabbing motions at the ground and finding a prize grub. The adult beetles feed on Eucalyptus species and when present in large numbers can completely defoliate small trees and do considerable damage. You can usually tell the presence of the grubs in a lawn by the frantic circling of their natural predator ,the parasitic wasp, which burrows down into the soil to find them. These wasps are brilliantly metallic red coloured and are members of the Family Thynnidae and are beneficial insects in the garden and do no harm to humans or plants.
I prefer the organic approach to lawn care and don't spray lawns to remove the curl grub larvae.I enjoy their appearance at this time of year as adult beetles and their evening antics outdoors.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Spiraea x bumalda, Red May

Spiraea x bumalda, Red May

This small deciduous shrub from Japan produces masses of delicate flowers over Summer and is a delightful addition to any garden. Best planted in a group of three for more impact, it is useful in a semi shaded courtyard or tucked under larger growing shrubs as a border planting. The flowers have masses of tiny prominent stamens which have been used as inspiration in Japan as a decorative motif on porcelain. There is a gold foliaged variety available as well called "Gold Flame", though the colour of the leaves clashes with the flower and it appears a bit lurid. Shearing off spent flowers during the coming months improves the overall appearance of this hardy and worthwhile shrub.
2017 update: I currently don't have any stock.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Black foliage Dahlia

Dahlia x hybrida 'Bishop of Llandaff' with silver Helichrysum petiolare

Dahlia x hybrida 'Yellow Hammer'

I always associate black Dahlias with the James Ellroy novel and film noir movie of the same name........... a spine tingling murder mystery and a real page turner. These Dahlias are striking in the summer garden and make a great contrast with lighter coloured foliage plants. They are low growing and compact and form a neat bush to around 60cm. Flowering continues for many months and removing spent flowers helps prolong blooming. In mild climates Dahlias can be left in the ground for years but the usual practise is to lift the tubers and store them in dry sand over winter ready for Spring planting. They have few pests but snails and slugs may damage newly merging leaves.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Fuchsia basket

Fuchsia in a hanging basket

Today I was looking around for a gift to take the host of a party I am going to on the weekend and came across this beautiful Fuchsia in a hanging basket.
Fuchsias are at their peak of flowering at the moment and to get a nice compact looking plant like this one, you need to start off by pruning back the bare stems in late winter ( most hybrids are deciduous) and then pinch out all the growing tips in early Spring to make it nice and bushy. A few doses of liquid fertilizer suitable for flowering plants helps produce lots of buds as well. They are fairly trouble free to grow and can even be brought indoors for a short period if grown in a basket such as this. These hybrid Fuchsias, which come in a huge range of colour combinations, were bred from species found in their native habitat of South America. They enjoy a position in shade with good soil moisture and high humidity. However, in case you think they are delicate and difficult to grow they will flower quite well in a full sun in parched dry soil as shown in the photo below.

A spot in full sun with no water has not stopped this Fuchsia from flowering.

Fuchsia named in honour of German Botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1556)
Portrait dated 1541 from Wurttenbergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

A photo from Wikipedia of a variety called 'Moonglow' growing in California
Have not seen this here but it looks exceptional

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Festive Flowers

Red roses, variegated Holly and buff coloured Alstromeria

As a centrepiece to a buffet table, this low arrangement is long lasting and should remain fresh for a week or more.The roses could be replaced with berries or bunches of cherries. Holly berries may be available from a specialist florist imported from the Northern Hemisphere.

A pyramid of tall grassy leaves with some hidden bejeweled flowers could be used as an alternative to a Christmas tree where space is limited. Fairy lights could be woven amongst the leaves as well for a sparkling effect.

A red and yellow combination for those who are spending the holidays at a beach house. A few red and yellow flags could be added to remind everyone to bathe between the flags this summer and learn to 'read' the surf.
An Aloe arborescens or Candelabra Aloe lacquered red with some dried palm flowers is a more avant- garde approach to an arrangement but is very sculptural, decorative and long lasting.

A smart and simple arrangement of red roses and grassy reeds to welcome guests as they come through the front door

Massonia pustulata

Massonia pustulata

Massonia is a genus of six species of bulbs from South Africa which are related to Hyacinth and have in common with them a delightful honey perfume. They are winter flowering bulbs and are usually dormant over summer. I took this photo back in May while visiting a friend who has a huge collection of plants in pots. I misspelled the name and it has taken to now to find out what it is. Massonia is named after Francis Masson (1741-1805) a Scottish botanist who became a plant collector for Kew Gardens under the curatorship of Sir Joseph Banks.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Buddleja davidii, Butterfly Bush

Buddleja davidii 'Nanho Blue'

Buddleja davidii 'Royal Red'

Buddleja davidii 'Nanho Blue' under-planted with Golden Heliotrope

When you get a cool summer
day like today, the Buddleja flowers are at their best and stay looking fresh for most of the day. The flowers are sweetly perfumed and are sometimes given the common name of 'Summer Lilac'. This 2 metre shrub from China with its arching branches and terminal nodding flowers is one of the best shrubs to attract butterflies and beneficial insects to the garden. They make a good background shrub for a vegetable garden though they are a bit of work to keep them looking in good shape
. I give them a hard prune in Spring as they make rapid growth once the weather warms up and I prune off the spent flowers continually at this time of year to keep them producing a fresh supply of buds. You can even pick bunches of the flowers for indoor use though they only last for a couple of days.
In China Buddleija is called Daye Zuiyucao which means 'Intoxicating fish plant', a name derived from the suggestion that the crushed flowers when thrown into water will stupefy fish.
Buddleija davidii will grow across a range of climates from cool temperate to sub tropical.
2017 update: I usually have stock available in early spring

Friday, December 11, 2009

First Figs

Small and sweet ,'White Adriatic' Figs
Never before have figs been ripe so early in Summer. Usually you have to wait until mid January before the first figs are ready for picking. It is not only here where fruit trees are growing out of character, perhaps because of climate change. I read a blog post recently from Portugal where the figs were producing fruit in the beginning of their winter.
What I like to do with figs is slice them in half and put brown sugar in the centre and then grill them until the sugar turns to caramel. I serve them with a big dollop of Greek style yogurt.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Zucchini 'Green Globe'

Zucchini 'Green Globe' fruit and flowers

This is a new variety of zucchini I have grown for the first time. It is best picked small like the long types, when the skin has a nice gloss to it . It has a very good flavour and it will definitely be a type I will grow again. The big bright flowers really make you feel happy that summer is in full swing and the longest day is not far off.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hesperaloe parviflora

I have had this grass like (Agave family) plant for many years, growing it in a small pot and not paying it much attention but this month, despite the neglect, it sent up a flower spike which slowly changed colour from a powder pink to salmon as the buds came out into the small tubular flowers. It is a native of northern Mexico and the Rio Grande area of Texas and apparently is much favoured in xeriscaped gardens of Arizona and New Mexico. The leaves are interesting also as they are quite stiff and gutter shaped and have a fray of fibres on the edge.In the garden it will form a clump to about 60cm, with the flower stem reaching 1.2 metres. It tolerates cold to minus 15C. and can be propagated by seed in autumn.
2017 update: I have a couple of plants available but it is a very slow grower.

Monday, December 7, 2009


The 'Greengrocer' Cicada (Cyclochila australasiae)

Outside my window in the evening this little fella joins with his mates to make about 150dB of shrill sound...a trilling experience to be sure. At this time of year,during the day, if you drive along any east coast road , you will suddenly come across a patch of trees which seems to be full of deafening Cicada song .The noise ends equally abruptly on leaving the patch of scrub. The main purpose of all this noise is to bring the "tribe" together and as a mating call to attract females. The female lays eggs on bark on tree branches high above the ground. She does this by sawing into the bark from a structure in her abdomen and laying 6 to 10 eggs in the slit in the bark . Many of these slits may be made , usually in a herringbone pattern along the branch.On hatching, the tiny nymphs jump off the branch to fall to the earth below. In their thousands they come showering down with a sound like rain on the leaves. Many die in the process of finding a suitable place to burrow underground to start their long life as subterranean nymphs.The most famous Cicada is a species from North America which spends 17 years underground. During this time they make themselves a little cell ,astride and piercing a rootlet as a source of food. On emerging they cast aside their old skin which is usually left behind on a wall or tree trunk as pictured below.

Through the split in the back of the cast skin something can be seen of the internal structure of the tracheae which forms the respiratory system of insects. When the cuticle is cast ,its extensions within the body are cast, too, and the linings of the tracheae trail from inside the cast skin. That is that small white curly bit in the photo. Fascinating stuff if you love cicadas and they seem to have a big fan club worldwide . I even came across a website called "Cicada Mania'.