Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cool & green: the heatwave solution

Browsing the weather forecast for the rest of the week, it looks like the mercury is going to go sky high and we are in for a real heatwave. I love to find a cool spot amongst lush shady plantings of palms, ferns and foliage plants such as bromeliads. The so called self cleaning palms always leave an interesting pattern of stripes on their trunks as the old fronds are shed. Planting strap leaf or vertical plants nearby makes for a wonderful contrast of form and pattern.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare

Icon of St. Athanasius
Pope of Alexandria, Egypt
Born C293, Died 2nd May C373

The herb Tansy is dedicated to St. Anthanasius

Tanacetum vulgare, Tansy

When I took over my plot at the community garden, I had to deal with several square metres of Tansy which had run wild. It took months to get it under control and even now I regularly chop it back and curse it, with apologies to St. Athanasius. It is a herb which is often included in organic gardens as the leaves, which are strongly bitter and aromatic, have some insecticidal uses and are said to be beneficial when added to compost heaps . In mid-summer the plant reaches well over 1.5 metres tall and produces masses of yellow button flowers which are very decorative. As a medicinal or culinary herb it has fallen from grace and is considered too dangerous to use, though many recipes still exist, especially in association with the Easter festival. An Easter pudding (a sort of custard pie) or Easter cake was simply called a tansy and was thought to be a wholesome antidote to all the salt fish that was consumed during Lent. The winner at stoolball, a game played at Easter time and basically the medieval forerunner of cricket or baseball, was presented with a tansy cake and hopefully a tankard or two of ale for their efforts.
Though native to Europe, tansy was one of the first plants brought to North America by the settlers. In the days before refrigeration, it was an important herb to keep food fresh and detrimental insects at bay. It also had uses as an embalming herb, either placed around a corpse or used to line a coffin. By the mid 18th century, tansy was growing wild along the hedgerows of Pennsylvania and it quickly became part of the American country scene. Tansy bitters, made by steeping leaves in a bottle of New England rum was a popular spring tonic and in the old mining area of South Dakota a similar brew was made using whiskey. Tansy is a survivor in abandoned gardens around farm houses, oblivious to competition from grass and other weeds. Plant it in your garden for its interesting historical significance but with care, that it does not overtake more desirable plants. There are some interesting cultivars which are worth looking out for as they are likely to be less invasive, including the variegated 'Silver Lace' and 'Isla Gold" and the fern leafed variety 'Crispum'.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

China Aster, Callistephus chinensis

Pink and blue Asters, Callistephus chinensis

Asters are tricky to grow well and I only had mixed success in growing them this summer. If you are not prepared to spray, they can be attacked by aphids, caterpillars, nematodes, powdery mildew, rust, wilt and root rot. They are worth the effort however as they make a terrific cut flower with their tall stems, especially the 'ostrich feathered' types such as 'Giant Crego'. I grew it and 'Perfection', both of which were available in punnets at my local garden centre, as well as some from seed . The first lot of seed failed to germinate and then the second batch did quite well by which time I had already planted out the punnets.
Peter Valder gives an interesting history of this Aster in his book The Garden Plants of China where it has been cultivated for centuries and known by the name of Cuiju or Kingfisher Chrysanthemum or Lanju blue chrysanthemum. Seed was sent to Europe in 1728 where pink and white forms were subsequently developed. Dorothy Graham writing in her book from 1938 Chinese Gardens describes eloquently 'the misty purple blue of China asters' and their 'feathery blossoms' which she used for filling in the spaces in her garden where other plants had thinned.
I am not a huge fan of the dwarf varieties such as the one pictured below, 'Starlight Rose', as these often get sold as instant potted colour, so the taller varieties become less well known and grown.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Oleander Handbook

The Handbook on Oleanders by Richard and Mary Helen Eggenberger is a book of great charm and is the definitive guide to the cultivation of Oleanders and other members of the Apocynaceae Family. It is also a book about a community of keen gardeners who did much to beautify and transform the US City of Galveston with their enthusiasm for this one plant. Up until now, any mention of Galveston got me humming the Jimmy Webb country song about the Spanish American War of 1898 ('I still hear your sea waves crashing /as I watch the cannons flashing / I clean my gun/ And dream of Galveston')
I caught the bug for growing Oleanders during the long years of drought and when I came across a variety I had never seen before I was hooked. I saw the one pictured below in a friend's garden and just had to propagate from it. It is a hose-in-hose pale pink flower with a pearly sheen to the petals ,very delicate and exquisite looking. The parent plant was not particularly robust at a little over 2 metres tall and with smaller leaves than normal. Like many plants you see potential in, this is one I will have to grow on for a few years and perhaps develop as a standard tree shape to show off the delicate flowers to best advantage.
2017 update: I have stock of a range of different Oleanders. Love 'em
 Pale pink hose-in-hose Oleander

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Goat's-thyme, Satureja thymbra

Satureja thymbra: Goat's thyme / Savory / Thrumba

Still in Greece or Crete to be more precise, this is a terrific barbecue herb as it combines the flavour of thyme, rosemary and oregano, and can be added to marinades or small branches can be placed directly on meat or vegetables such as eggplant while cooking. It is quite a strong aromatic herb and in its native habitat grows on dry rocky hillsides which come alive in spring to the sound of bees which are attracted to the bright pink flowers. I grow mine in a pot where it can be kept on the dry side. I always lose plants I pamper by putting them into compost rich garden soil. Recently I collected the seed which had formed in the old flower heads and hope to grow some more plants of it in this way.
2017 update: I still grow this and occasionally have plants available for sale.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Plant pathology:Bean rust, Uromyces appendiculatus

Bean rust, Uromyces appendiculatus

In late January and for most of February, the vegetable garden goes into a bit of a decline as fluctuations of temperature, showery weather and high humidity, especially on the coast, make for an increase in fungal diseases, in particular rusts and mildew. The bean rust pictured above is clearly visible on the dark leaves of this purple climbing bean showing up as yellow spots on the upper surface and rusty orange blisters on the lower surface of the leaf. After a week or so the leaves start to turn papery brown (see below) and die, resulting in decreased yields and premature death of the plant. Spraying with a sulfur based product or eco-carb in the early stages may halt the spread to other plants but badly affected plants should be removed and binned not put into compost.

2 fantastic Cannas

Canna x 'Constitution'

Canna x 'Intrigue'

These are my top 2 Cannas from this summer. Canna 'Constitution' has been in flower for about six weeks. The pale pink flowers are complimented by smokey bronze foliage. It is an American cultivar bred by geneticist Robert Armstrong.
C. 'Intrigue' is less noted for its flowers, which are small and insignificant, but it has a striking architectural upright habit and strongly pointed long leaves. It is thought to have originated from a Botanic Garden in Eastern Europe where it had a different cultivar name. It was introduced to the wider garden world by Herb Kelly Jnr of Kelly's Plant World of Sanger, California.
2017 update: I no longer have either of these Cannas unfortunately.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Portulaca grandiflora

Portulaca hail from sunny Brazil and are one of the easiest to grow summer annuals with flowers lasting for several months. The flowers range in colour from orange, pink, white, yellow to purple.The narrow bright green leaves are succulent, round and pointed and clump together like tiny moss plants.I like to grow them in shallow pots, hanging baskets or window boxes as they are hardy enough to keep on blooming even when the container gets a little on the dry side. Portulaca once had the reputation of being sunny day only plants as the flowers stayed closed during dull days. The introduction of the 'cloud beater' series and generally improved cultivars with larger flowers has made this plant a real winner for summer gardens.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pinus strobus 'Merrimack'

Dwarf Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus 'Merrimack'
I am having a pine romance with dwarf conifers having spent a lifetime doing battle with trees and shrubs which turn into giants and become unmanageable in a tiny garden. The parent of this little pine tree does grow into a giant and originates from the eastern parts of USA. This little beauty only grows to about 1 metre high after ten years. What I love about it is the blue foliage which is soft to touch. Planting it in a raised container where you can brush past it or run your hands through the pine needles would be ideal, something to keep in mind if you are designing a garden for the visually impaired.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Community Nursery

The Community Nursery at Centennial Parklands, Sydney
Last Thursday a friend took me on a tour of a small community nursery where she spends time as a volunteer propagating plants. The nursery is part of the "Education Precinct" at Centennial Parklands and is open to volunteers, students and community groups who want to learn about plants and become involved in helping green this part of the urban environment .Wheelchair access has been provided for those people with a disability who want to come and work there as well. It is hard to believe this fantastic facility is located just ten minutes from the Sydney CBD.
Here are some photos from my visit.

Recycled concrete pots planted with fruit trees along the front entrance of the nursery

Growing plants from seed in the glasshouse

Bright Coleus in the shade house

Lots of my favourite native grasses

Centennial Parklands Education Precinct - Centennial Parklands

Monday, January 10, 2011

Variegated Cottontree, Hibiscus tilaceous Albo-Variegatus

Variegated Cottontree, Hibiscus tilaceus Albo-variegatus
under-planted with Iris japonica
It was a steamy tropical shirts off kinda day with more rain but fortunately not the deluge disastrous kind which is happening up north. This South Pacific beach tree sums up the weather when Mother Nature is in more of a party mood. It has stunning leaves which vary from white to hot pink. I have not grown this form but I would love to propagate it.The dark purple leafed species (atropurpurea) is more commonly seen here and its yellow flowers stand out well against the foliage. Like many Hibiscus, this one takes pruning into more formal or hedge shapes and is tolerant of salt laden winds and cooler growing conditions.
The plant taxonomists have been busy reclassifying some of the Hibiscus Family, Malvaceae. This one now goes by the name of Talipariti tiliaceum. The common name of Cotton tree is given because the fibre from the inner bark is used to make ropes or tapa cloth in Polynesia.
2017 update: elusive... but I have a couple of the purple leafed species in stock.