Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis

Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis
Declared noxious in most States

Every now and then I come across a weed which proves almost impossible to get rid of, returning thicker and wilder after first attempts to remove it.This is one such weed as it has a deep reaching network of rhizomatious roots which are thin and easily broken. New plants grow from every single piece of broken root. Clear a space for planting seedlings and adding fertilizer is a fatal mistake as this weed will take advantage of the rich soil and grow twice as fast and much lusher than before. It climbs up and over plants smothering them as it goes. As the site where it is growing is organically certified, my only option is hand weeding over and over again until it is weakened by the constant attack. Wish me luck....

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest

Published in 1982 by Ten Speed Press
Berkeley, California

This book is a classic of vegetarian cooking and contains the best bread recipes you are ever likely to find. Just love the sesame-lemon bread.
Yesterday, a mate at the community garden planted his own "broccoli forest" so I was reminded of this book. Everyone has their own way of planting and preparing the soil, but B. attacked the task with mathematical precision. Notebook and measuring tape in hand, all his seedlings which he had grown beautifully from organic certified seed were planted a precise distance apart. I am trying really hard to follow this method but I remain a terribly untidy vegetable gardener.

Hardy Agave under Pine Trees

It is always difficult to find something to grow in the dry shade of pine trees but Agave angustifolia Marginata seems to be thriving and is spreading out with lots of new plants.
2017 update: I have plenty of stock of this Agave.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jatropha multifida, Coral Plant

This Jatropha is found from Mexico to Brazil and is used as a street tree in Lagos, Nigeria. It is not quite warm enough to grow it well here and I tend to lose it during a cold wet winter. The bottom photo shows my plant growing in a tiny pot as it puts on a tremendous amount of growth during Summer and really does not need much soil nutrition or water to perform well. In shade, or when grown indoors the leaves become filigree like and darker green while they are more broad and pale in full sun. Under mature specimens it is easy to pick up seed or even young plants which are not difficult to propagate or grow on. The scarlet flower heads are profuse and the name coral plant suits it when these are in full flight. Like other members of the Euphorbia family, the stems exude a white milky sap when cut which can be caustic if it comes in contact with skin.
2017 update: I no longer have this plant.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bitter Cucumber or Karella, Momordica charantia

Developing fruit of the Bitter Cucumber, Momordica charantia
This is a vegetable growing on a plot at the community garden. It is quite a delicate looking climber with lobed leaves like a Japanese Maple and tiny perfumed yellow flowers. I have read about it in books but have not had the chance to try cooking with the fruit. I like the description Joy Larkcom gives it, as something which has 'rubbed shoulders with an alligator in the primordial slime', as the skin is often warty or spiny. When the fruit matures it turns a bright orange-red colour and it splits open to reveal many black seeds. Karella is the name given to it in India where it is used in curries.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bamboo goes formal

There is still a lot of fear about planting Bamboo because of its reputation as an invasive plant with a terrible root system which can lift up buildings. However if a bit of thought goes into planting it properly such as using root barrier material for the running kind or planting the clumping varieties within well made garden planter boxes, there is little to worry about. Bamboo lends itself to quite formal pruning such as hedge shapes or rounded shrubs such as pictured below. The spears of new growth need to be cut off at the desired height as the flush of leaves below the growing point usually occurs sometime after this has been done. From time to time old canes may need to be removed from the base of the plant to keep the overall appearance looking fresh. I have been watching my 'Timor Black' bamboo over the last couple of weeks sending up huge new canes to at least 8 metres tall. These are just spears or canes without any leaves as yet. What is incredible is that I did not expect this kind of growth from a bamboo which is supposed to be quite tropical in origin. I will take a photo of the clump once the leaves have filled out.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Climbers as weeds

Bittersweet Celastrus scandens

When I got a request for the climber 'Bittersweet' from an expat American living in Thailand, I soon found out after a quick net search that it is one of the worst weeds of North America and it is responsible for displacing and spoiling the habitat of the similar indigenous species Celastrus orbiculatus, which also produces a bright display of berries though not along the stem as in the case of the one above which is from Asia. Weedy climbers are my least favourite plants as they are just so hard to reach and get rid of successfully. One I do battle with on a regular basis is Madeira Vine (Andredera cordifolia) which, I noticed this morning is just coming into flower with its characteristic "lamb's tail" tassel like flowers. This climber deserves a post on its own so I can rant and rave about how horrible it is to deal with. Some others which are also evil are pictured below and I may come back to these again at a later date. A few brief comments for now...

'Turkey Rhubarb'
 Acetosa sagittata

Flowering now and ready to shed a million papery seeds which are easily wind blown away, this climber has the added "advantage" of producing tubers or yams underground which break off easily when the plant is removed thus ensuring its regrowth soon after.

Balloon Vine, left (Cardiospermum grandiflorum) and Moth Plant (Araujia hortorum) competing for space in bushland in a climbing frenzy
Balloon vine is so named because of the shape of the casing surrounding the seeds. It can parachute down to earth from trees or drop into a stream and float for miles to a new location. One of the extraordinary images I recall of this climber was in a garden in a prestigious Sydney suburb where the vine had covered and smothered every single tree and shrub in the entire garden with the property owner seemingly oblivious to the environmental damage caused.
As for Moth plant, rarely a day goes by when I am not pulling out a rogue seedling which has taken advantage of a tiny gap in pavement to grow well. Its other common name is 'Cruel plant' as the moths or butterflies which come to pollinate it get their proboscis' trapped in the flowers when feeding. This semi-carnivorous habit is interesting evolution.  Do the dead moths fall to the ground after doing their pollination work to provide extra fertilizer for the host? The plant has all bases covered as the large pear like fruit which are produced have a poisonous milky latex and hard outer shell . When ripe they break open to release a million silky threaded seeds which float or blow away easily. More ranting weed hating posts soon.....
Pear like fruit of the Moth Plant high up in a tree

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rosella, Hibiscus sadariffa

Rosella fruit of Hibiscus sabdariffa

I wrote about Rosellas two years ago on this blog and at the time said it was too far south to grow them properly . Well I have been proved wrong by the Burmese-Australians who have a huge crop on their community garden plot. They harvest the leaves regularly to make soup, though they have an interesting sharp sour taste when eaten raw. So next summer I will be growing some.

Bees love Basil

Purple flowered perennial Basil

Rino's large leafed form of Lemon Basil

In the late afternoon, early evening the bees are still active on the Basil plants so there must be something particularly appealing about their flowers which keeps them out and about so late in the day. These two varieties of Basil have been the outstanding ones of the summer. The perennial purple basil has quite dark leaves and forms a neatly rounded shape to about 75cm high. It is the first time I have grown it and I am assuming it will go through winter ok.
I admired Rino's Lemon Basil early in summer as I had not seen this one before.The lemon basil I normally grow is a small neat plant about 20cm tall with quite narrow leaves. I am hoping to get some seed of this larger one for planting next summer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Angled Luffa, Luffa acutangula

60cm long fruit of the Angled Luffa

A friend of mine told me today that I should stop growing so many "trick" vegetables and stick to the tried and true Aussie ones. Bloody unlikely I say, though I don't mind a good Brussel Sprout! This is an Asian vegetable which I have grown for the first time this past summer. I used the fruit when they were quite small at about 10cm long. They have ten distinct equidistant ridges on their surface which when peeled off before cooking leaves a nice striped pattern. The flavour was mild and sweet and much like a zucchini so it is something I will save the seed of and grow again next spring. It is a climber which needs a trellis at least 2 metres high. Flowering and fruiting is triggered by the shorter days of late summer so February here is when you can expect a good crop. I didn't quite get the chance to take a photo of the flowers which were a unique incredibly bright milky yellow..... luminous is the word to describe them.
A few other names for it if you see it in an Asian market : sze gwa in China, petola-sagi in Malaysia and murop kai in Vietnam. Other common names include Silk Gourd or Ridged Gourd

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Olive harvest

From March to May olives slowly turn from green to black and this year Monica's tree has a bumper crop with branches bending low under the weight of fruit. The tree has been allowed to grow un-pruned for years as its main purpose in life is to provide summer shade from the fierce western sun and add atmosphere to a wonderful Italianate Sydney garden. The last time I pickled the olives from this tree the fruit had bruised as I had collected them as windfall and the resulting olives were too soft and only really good for making tapenade. This year the arborist was at work in the garden and he gently lowered the laden branches to the ground so I could hand pick them.
Patience is the key to successful pickling it seems. Last time I added too much salt when processing them which I didn't seem to wash off properly. Reading Maggie Beer's approach to preserving olives in her book Maggie's Farm has given me an incite into what can go wrong and it seems even the experts can have failures. So in about 6 weeks time and many changes of water later I might have some nice olives to share around.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Water Spinach, Ipomoea aquatica

Water Spinach 
 Ipomoea aquatica

I first ate this Asian green as a side dish in a Bangkok restaurant. It was stir-fried with garlic, chilli, red shallots and dried shrimp and had the most amazing lurid green colour on the plate. In Thailand it is known as pak boong and in other parts of Asia as kangkung. It is an easy summer green to grow and does not need to be grown in water as the name suggests but is happy in rich moist soil in sun. As it is perennial, plants will survive over winter though it is better to sow fresh seed in spring and start afresh with a new crop. It forms a mass of creeping stems covered in spear shaped leaves. The stems which are hollow, curl when cut making for a decorative garnish. White flowers similar to convolvulus appear in late autumn.

Indian Myna Bird eradication

Indian Myna Bird

A blogger from Melbourne recently lamented the declining native bird population in her garden and laid blame partly on the destructive and pesky Myna birds whose population has swelled in recent years. I couldn't agree with her more though there are plenty of active native birds here such as the huge flocks of rainbow parrots which go screaming overhead on a regular basis or fall about drunk after too much nectar from the Queensland Umbrella trees which are currently in flower.
 Myna birds tend to avoid gardens where there is not much lawn or ones with densely planted shrubs. They like to dodge the traffic on the road or hop about on suburban roofs or gutters. Their call is always so harsh and nasty and they are certainly not afraid of anything or anyone.The local paper here has started to promote ways of getting rid this pest. The men's social group 'Men's Shed' has started making wooden trap boxes for residents who want to capture the birds and dispose of them humanely..

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Edible Seaweeds

Edible Algae, Seaweeds of Australia: Sea grapes, Sea lettuce and Sea-string.

The sea can be cruel. It is shocking to see the devastation caused by the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan. The unfolding story is revealing total destruction of communities who live close to and derive their livelihood from the ocean. Large areas of their coast are set aside for the cultivation of seaweed which is an important food plant and essential part of the diet of the people. I often buy seaweed salad, imported from Japan, and it is delicious to eat. I am also familiar with wakame, nori, and kombu. Kombu (Laminaria japonica) is boiled with katsuobushi (Bonito flakes) to make dashi, a stock essential in Japanese cuisine.
In Australia there has been very little use of our native seaweeds in the food industry. During colonial times ladies made milk jellies from species such as Eucheuma speciosum of Western Australia and later this was used in the meat canning industry during the second World War when imports were restricted.The giant brown alga, Macrocystis pyrifera from Tasmania's east coast has also been used for the extraction of sodium alginate which is used as a stabilizing agent in foodstuffs such as icecream. Sea grapes, Caulerpa racemosa, which I often come across when exploring tidal rock pools, is easy to identify by the creeping stem with bulbous 'grapes' attached. It is cultivated in the Philippines for use as a popular salad vegetable mixed with tomato and onion and dressed with vinegar. Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) is another type which you may come across on rocky shores at low tide. The plants appear as green sheets about 15cm long and can be eaten raw in salads or added to soups. Sea string (Gracilaria species) is sometimes called Chinese Moss as this plant is used in China for a special dish celebrating New Year. It is found in bays and estuaries and consists of cylindrical or flattened stems up to 2 metres in length. It can be eaten raw or boiled but also can be dried for later use to make milk jellies. After washing in fresh water to remove any marine animals it can be dried in the sun for a week or so with constant turning.
The image of seaweed for use only as a garden fertilizer needs to change but it will take a celebrity chef with an eye for the unusual to create an interest in it and for it to become part of our diet as in Japan.

Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Piccabeen Palm

Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Piccabeen Palm

The first topic of conversation amongst gardeners is invariably the weather and this week was no exception. It has been very muggy with not a breath of wind and the horizon has that brown smudge of pollution which only a good sou' wester is going to shift. Up north there is way too much rain again but here the clouds build up in the afternoon, followed by a few thunder claps and then nothing. I want rain before planting some carrot seed and the brassica plants need a good kick along which only a gentle shower can give them.
This palm in flower caught my eye this week as the curtain of flowers looked wonderful set against blue black thunder clouds. It gets called Bangalow palm as well as Piccabeen palm. The common name is derived from the aboriginal word
Pikki which refers to the expanded leaf base which was used to carry water. It is a hardy and attractive 'self-cleaning' palm.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Agonis flexuosa and Eucalyptus diversicolour

Eucalyptus diversicolour
  Karri Tree of Western Australia
I have just finished reading the bitter sweet novel Breath by Tim Winton. The book was published in 2009 and has won a swag of literary awards, deservedly so. The main character, 'Pikelet' is very much aware of his environment, on both land and sea, and even spends a bit of time in the library reading books on plants when not distracted by conquering the surf. Two trees form part of the narrative and each represents a different aspect of his growing up in that southern region of Western Australia. The majestic Karri tree, one of the giants of the plant world is held in awe and the forest of these trees is a place of loneliness and fear, shunned by others in his community. Pikelet spends time amongst these trees to overcome his fear of some of the dangerous surf breaks he is yet to experience and to have alone time to contemplate and work out why his friends act the way they do.
The other tree is the coastal Peppermint or 'Willow Myrtle', Agonis flexuosa. In the book this tree is all sweetness and light, alive with honey eating birds while releasing an invigorating fragrance from its leaves in the hot sun to make the surf even more inviting for Pikelet and his friends.
Of all the wonderful trees from Western Australia, this is one which grows well on the east coast especially on coastal sands but also on difficult sites away from the coast in humid sub-tropic regions. It needs room however to reach its full potential and can reach 8 metres in height with a dense spreading crown of weeping willow type branches.The dwarf form A.f. 'Nana' only grows to 2.5 metres and makes an excellent windbreak or low hedge in coastal sands but has largely fallen out of favour since the rise and rise of the Lilly Pilly hedge of recent years. The coloured leaf forms, 'Variegata' and 'Fairy Foliage' are handsome small trees/large shrubs with dainty open habit and leaves tinged creamy yellow in the former and blush pink in the latter. Some shade is needed to stop the foliage from burning. Both are not easy to come by in the nursery trade perhaps due to their difficulty in propagation and slow growth habit. The cultivar 'After Dark' is more readily available and it fits the bill perfectly for the burgundy/black foliage colour mania which has been popular in recent years. It makes a decorative container specimen for even a tiny balcony garden.
Whenever I come across these trees in the future I will think of Tim Winton's terrific novel Breath

Willow Peppermint, Agonis flexuosa in the blinding white sand of WA
Photo:K.C. Richardson

Agonis flexuosa 'After Dark'
Breath is published by Penguin books

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bac Ha

Taro leaf

Bac ha is the name used in Cambodia and Vietnam for celery stem Taro which I wrote about in the last post. Here is a link to a site with a recipe using it in the cuisine of those countries:
Bac Ha Recipes - Pham Fatale

Friday, March 4, 2011

Celery Stem Taro, Xanthosoma brasiliense

Xanthosoma brasiliense syn Colocasia gigantea
Tahitian Spinach / Celery Stem Taro / Callaloo / Belembe

I have planted this variety of taro in my community garden plot and it is one which is grown for its edible leaves and leaf stem (petiole) and not for the tuber or yam as in other varieties. There is confusion over the botanical name with some sources listing it as Xanthosoma and others including it with Colocasia. The vernacular French name callaloo or calalou has its origin in the Caribbean (it's also called Carib cabbage) and a soup of that name is very popular in the West Indies. It is also eaten like spinach in Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Lesser Antilles, southern Brazil and Hawaii. The leaf stems and leaves are also used throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands and as a cooked green it provides an excellent source of vitamin C (142mg per 100g), vitamin A, calcium, potassium, phosphorous and iron. It is also rich in protein (4.4mg per 100g) with most of the essential amino acids present. It is important to note that taro leaves and stems should never be eaten raw and a long cooking time is recommended to eliminate the acrid "twang" of calcium oxalate crystals contained in the plant which can cause irritation to the mouth and throat. Asian food expert Charmaine Solomon gives a first hand account of her experience of eating undercooked taro leaves as 'the sensation of a hundred red hot needles in my throat'. Only the Japanese have the technique for using it raw, finely sliced with sushi and given the name of zuiki. The experience and itching sensation on the mucous membranes described as egumi (mi meaning taste).
Taro is easy to grow as long as it gets lots of water and is provided with a humus rich soil. It may go dormant in cool climates over winter though its origin as a jungle plant means it can tolerate the short days and low light levels of winter.
I have yet to experiment with cooking it but have found an excellent Indian recipe from the  blog of Soumya's kitchen. In India taro is called arvi or patra. Here is the link:

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Great mushroom heads of flowers are starting to form on this Sedum. This is the first time it has stayed compact and together over the summer. My criticism of this plant in the past is that the stems collapse under the weight of the developing flowers and it looks a mess.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

2 Rainforest Pioneer trees

Omalanthus populifolius 
 Native Poplar

Polyscias murrayi 
 Pencil Cedar

These two trees make an appearance from Gippsland in Victoria to Northern Queensland. They have evolved to be the first on the scene to fill a gap whenever a tree falls in the rainforest , land is disturbed bordering thick forest or a road verge is cleared of excess vegetation. The native poplar, which is also called bleeding heart is so successful in colonisation that it often appears in a variety of habitats and even makes an appearance in shady city gardens far from where you would expect to see it. It is a quick growing small tree, rarely growing more than 4 metres tall with a single trunk and bushy crown. It is the heart shaped red/orange leaves which appear throughout the year which gives it the bleeding heart common name and makes it quite distinctive when seen against the dark green of surrounding trees. The insignificant tassel like flowers followed by glaucous 10mm fruit are very attractive to birds which carry the ingested seeds and deposit them far and wide. Newly established trees are able to eek out a living in quite dry and inhospitable places though their leaves are often much smaller than those growing in better sites.
The Pencil Cedar is a more elegant tree with a beautiful silhouette when seen against the sky above surrounding vegetation. It is clever in establishing itself by means of a slender trunk to over 6 metres before deciding to branch. It grows a further 6 metres with an umbrella shaped crown of metre long pinnate leaves consisting of 30 opposite leaflets and one terminal leaflet. At this time of year it produces greenish yellow flowers on large branched panicles followed by small red fruit which are also attractive to birds.

The Catbird likes to eat the fruit of these trees.