Saturday, December 29, 2012

Summer flowers

Dahlia and Zinnia flowers
Music by Howard Shore: The Hobbit soundtrack out now on Decca records

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Festive Season

Today I will be working in the vegetable garden while listening to J S Bach.
Happy Festive Season to all.  Rejoice greatly!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Justicia betonica,White Shrimp Plant

Justicia betonica, White Shrimp Plant
My blogger mate Sandy from the Sunshine Coast once featured this plant which she found growing beside a drain as a 'garden escapee'. I came across it on a nature strip in a Sydney street and immediately screeched to a halt and ordered my work mate out of the passenger seat to grab a cutting. That was last summer and now I have some very healthy specimens growing, flowering and almost ready for sale. This is a charming small rounded shrub growing to about a metre in height with a crown of papery flowers which consist of green veined white bracts from which emerge lovely baby pink flowers. These flowers are produced continually for about six months and have a wonderful texture when handled. I am thinking it would make a great specimen for a blind-fold guessing competition.
Most Justicias will tolerate light frost or will defoliate in very cold winters but are otherwise very hardy and tolerant of shade and dry conditions. Best specimens grow in well mulched semi shaded positions with regular water.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Achillea millefolium 'Ivory Moon'

 Achillea millefolium 'Ivory Moon'
Of the two white Yarrows I have been growing this summer, the other being 'White Delight', this is by far the superior cultivar. The mark of a good variety being upright sturdy stems and large flat 'plates' of flowers. In bud 'Ivory Moon' starts off as a cream colour before changing to ivory white.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

White Lightnin' Lantana montevidensis

Lantana montevidensis  'White Lightnin'
Banned but not forgotten, this ground cover Lantana weaves its way between the curved spiked leaves of some big Agave plants and the delicate white flowers look quite charming. Though it does not set seed, it is thought that the pollen from this species may contribute to the continually evolving weed species L.camara which costs the country billions of dollars each year by degrading agricultural land and by causing loss of habitat for native flora and fauna.

Zinnia 'Zowie'

Zinnia 'Zowie' hot pink
This is one of the compact low growing Zinnias which look terrific mass planted in a low bowl shaped container or when used to edge a path. I grew this variety from seed but I have seen it available as 'potted colour' in a Garden Centre. The buds open as a fine pin-wheel or star shape before becoming fully double over the course of a week or so. Zinnias love the heat and are tolerant of dry . Although these low growing varieties are not useful as cut flowers they are tolerant of  strong sea breezes in coastal gardens and those hot northerlies which sees the temperature go up above 35C in western Sydney.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Zantedeschia x elliottiana, Calla Lily

 I am beginning to get a bit cautious about putting a cultivar name to a particular bulb or seed which comes labelled as one thing but looks remarkably like something else when it comes into flower. This Calla lily is called 'Hot Chocolate' which is supposed to be a dark burgundy colour but these flowers look very much like another called 'Pot Black'. I need a Kiwi Calla grower to give me a correct ID as New Zealand is the country of origin of many of these wonderfully coloured summer flowering hybrids. The Zantedeschia  species are native to South Africa, so, like a lot of their flowering bulbs, they need a dry dormant 'downtime' such as over winter in this case.  If grown where winters tend to be wet and cold the bulbs can rot unless you have well drained sandy soil. I grow them in pots and at every stage of growth they look remarkable. The newly emerging leaves are pointed spears ,spotted white and edged with black eye liner. As the leaves mature the stems turn red like rhubarb (pictured below) and look terrific when placed in a clear glass vase with either the Calla flowers or those of a different type. If growing Callas in pots, regular applications of liquid fertilizer encourages the production of more flowers with stronger stems. Bulbs are usually available during winter for spring planting.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'White Dynamite'

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'White Dynamite'
Waiting to check on proper name for this variety

Calabash / Bottle Gourd

 A Burmese Australian friend has introduced me to the Calabash or Bottle Gourd as a food plant. I have had a couple of carved ones for years and always thought it was just an ornamental plant. One the carved ones pictured above has been decorated with oak leaves, acorns and snowflakes so the carver may be of English origin.
Bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria
The plant is a very rampant summer vine of tropical and probably African origin. It has that hot climate habit of producing large tissue paper like flowers which bloom at night to attract moths and bats. Hand pollination is recommended to ensure a good crop as the night life pollinators are not always active or in large numbers. During the day the flowers appear brown and wilted.
 The fruit is best used when young, in ways as you would with squash or zucchini. The Burmese deep fry pieces to make the snack boo-thee kyaw. In Japan, ribbon like strips of the flesh (yuugao) are dried and used as an edible tie for sushi. In fact most Asian countries use it as a cooked vegetable in curries, soups and stir fried.
Burmese snack boo-thee kyaw

Sunday, December 9, 2012

a superb oleander

Andre Gide gets excited by the sight of an Oleander after a long journey...
'I should also say we had a good journey. We arrived here in the evening, exhausted by the heat, stimulated by the novelty, having stopped only briefly in Algiers and Constantine. At Constantine we caught another train to Sidi b. M., where a small cart was waiting for us.The road peters out someway short of the village, which is perched high on a rock like certain towns in Umbria. We climbed up on foot; a pair of mules carried our baggage. By this route, Michel's is the first house one comes to in the village. It is surrounded by a walled garden, or rather a paddock, in which grew three stunted pomegranate trees and a superb oleander.'  Andre Gide (L'Immoraliste) The Immoralist 1902

Oleander blossom makes a wonderful cut flower. The flowers are sweetly perfumed and have long vase life. When handling Oleander wear gloves and wash hands after touching cut stems.

First tomatoes of the season.

First picked tomatoes of the season are always the best. A mix of colours here including pink, yellow, red and green.

Calendula rust: Puccinia lagenophorae

Powdery orange rust, Puccinia lagenophorae on Calendula officinalis
Calendulas, which are sometimes give the name English marigolds, are at their peak of flowering from mid to late winter and into spring. The recent warm humid and showery weather means they are more susceptible to getting this rust disease, which is thought to originate in Australia on several native plant species, but is now fairly widespread across the world. The plants lose vigor and rapidly decline in appearance with leaves often turning black as the rust spores mature.
Nothing to be done but pull the Calendulas out and dispose of in the bin. One of the weed hosts of this rust is the common groundsel bush Senecio vulgaris. This weed is fairly common in horticultural crops and I was interested to read that the rust is being used as part of a new strategy in biological weed control in Europe. Scientific research papers can be viewed if you Google Puccinia lagenophora.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cardoon, Cynara cardunculus

Cardoon, Cynara cardunculus (Asteraceae)

A not for the faint-hearted vegetable garden: Cardoon with Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
In recent years the vegetable garden has become both a productive and ornamental feature of many gardens. In some cases it has made the switch from backyard to front garden, possibly at the expense of many flower displays of Petunias and Phlox. Driving around at this time of year I see tee-pees of climbing beans and the tasseled flowers of sweet corn peeping over the front fence of many homes.  
For those looking for a dramatic foliage plant, architectural even, with huge flowers, it is hard to go past the Cardoon. Related both to the globe artichoke and the scotch thistle, it has more in common with the latter as it is a spiny and prickly customer. It also can be a bit weedy. When the purple flowers have finished, hundreds of fluffy wind borne seeds are sent into space and hence it has weed status in many parts of the world. It was even noted as such back in 1845 by Charles Darwin writing in his Journal of the Voyage of the H.M.S Beagle for in the chapter Banda Oriental (del Uruguay) he noted 'very many, probably several hundred, square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants and are impenetrable by man or beast. Over the undulating plains where these great beds occur nothing else can now live.' This sounds very similar to the problem faced in Australia by the 'prickly pear' (Opuntia sp) menace of the late 19th and early 20th Century.
Cardoon is weedy both in central Victoria and around Adelaide. However it is 'harvested' and used as a forage plant by many who are partial to the delicate flavour of the peeled and blanched stems and flower bases. Both of the related familiar garden weeds, the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and the true Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium) can be used in this way, though thick gloves and possibly a suit of armour are recommended when handling them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Billy Buttons

 Craspedia species "Billy Buttons'
 Helenium puberulum

The native 'Billy Buttons' (Craspedia species) is one of those really tricky plants to grow in a garden situation. In its Alpine habitat it has a trickle of melted snow underneath its roots while it is making its spring growth. It is grown commercially as a cut flower but perhaps is treated as an annual in that case. By the time it makes it to a florist it has often been dyed a range of lurid colours, though I am never sure what the appeal is in doing so. The technical description for flowers of this type in the daisy family is that each head appears as mainly a 'spherical bunch of disk florets'. The petals or 'ray florets' are tiny or absent.
I have doing some trials of the Californian native Helenium puberulum which has this flower structure and it is certainly much easier to grow. It hails from the Baja region of Southern California (think surfing and dramatic scenery) where it is given the Mexican name of 'Rosilla'. An English seed company has called it by the dreadful name of 'Autumn Lollipops' which is a slightly kitsch sounding name. I will stick to Billy Buttons I think. In Australia many Northern hemisphere perennials will flower in spring and then again in autumn following a cut back of the main flower stems. This Helenium makes growth as a single multi-branched stem of flowers with few leaves. The leaves have been modified to form a flange or flap clasping the stem. This economy of appearance, no leaves nor petals, is perhaps an adaptation to a harsh climate where all the plant's energy is put into producing a big ball of pollen which is large enough to use by any passing insect as a landing strip. The other possibility is that because it grows mainly along streams it is able to adapt to any rising water levels with its overall rhythmic shape. I have yet to try picking a bunch of the flowers so I will be interested to know what their vase life is and whether they dry well. Further details to follow.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Viola tricolor, Heartsease

 The Violas go into panic mode at this time of year and put on a last hurrah of masses of flowers to ensure they leave enough seed behind to complete their life cycle. It is on dull cloudy days they look the best and the plants which grow in poorer soil in full sun have the most compact habit and more flowers. There are even tiny plants covered in flowers which grow through the cracks of pavement. However once the really hot days of December arrive it will be time to pull them out, though I usually scatter the spent plants around, as this most pleasant of 'weeds' is always welcome back in the garden. They usually don't make another appearance till winter, mainly in my vegetable garden. As soon as I see the young seedlings emerge I dig them up and nurture them in pots till big enough to plant out uncongested and where I want them to go. I love the many and varied common names given to this plant which include Johnny-Jump-Up, Call-me-to-You, Love-in-Idleness, Three-Faces-under-a-Hood as well as the most common one of Heartsease which may refer to use as a love- charm especially in a Midsummer Night's Dream. Good old Shakespeare loved his flowers.
The name Heartsease also refers to its many and varied uses in herbal medicine. These days the flowers are a favourite decoration on plates of food or added to salads. No episode of the series Masterchef was ever without these little beauties making an appearance and I assume that in the more temperate parts of the country they may just go on flowering for most of the year.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Turmeric and Galangal

Tumeric (Curcuma longa)

Galangal (Alpinia galanga)
Coming out of their long winter hibernation after being placed in boxes and covered in a mix of sand and perlite, these Asian spice plants are ready to plant out.The pointed buds are starting to swell and are changing colour from pink to pale green. In less than a month new leaves will start to push their way through the earth and thereafter growth will be rapid. The galangal will soar up to one and a half metres by the end of summer.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fiskars shrub rake

Fiskars 'shrub rake'
Gardeners can spend a lifetime acquiring their tools of the trade. Some of the best garden tools I have found have been for sale at local market stalls , old tools re-fashioned or made-over by weather beaten men of European extraction who look as if they have spent a lifetime tilling the soil.Their callused hands caress the wooden handles as part of the sales pitch while I ponder what use I can put to an ancient scythe more at home on the Russian steppes of a previous century. Occasionally I get excited about a new tool and marvel about how well designed it is. This Finnish designed shrub rake is so called because in the northern hemisphere, where lawn does not grow like stink as here, it finds a use for removing leaves which fall over beds of ground cover and for reaching up over hedge plants to remove the spent prunings. To a certain extent these uses make it ideal for any part of the gardening world but in Australia rakes are mostly associated with lawn care and in this use it does not disappoint either. This is the perfect small rake with a 140mm wide head for use in narrow tight garden corners. The handle is lightweight aluminium, strong and long for hard raking over lawn or for reaching up onto the top of shrubs to retrieve pruned branches. Ten out of ten thanks Fiskars.

Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon'

Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon'
The plain green form of this plant is more commonly known as Vietnamese fish mint, giap/diep ca or phak khao tong in Thailand. Leaves are added to soups, used in salads or in rice paper rolls. As it has quite a strong flavour it has not become well known or popular amongst 'foodies' here. In the world of ornamental horticulture however this 'chameleon' cultivar is regarded as a hardy herbaceous perennial suitable for boggy or wet sites or for brightening shady corners of the garden. It grows across a range of climates forming a dense spreading ground cover and can become invasive in some climates. As the weather warms up it puts on a wonderful display of intensely marked leaves which range in colour from yellow to hot pink and cream. Best kept in a pot with a deep saucer of water underneath or in a pond if you don't want the hard work of keeping it under control.
2017 update: I usually have stock available in early summer.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Chameleon Rose

Miniature rose 'Chameleon' (Bob Dylan 'Blonde on Blonde' 1966)
Actress Cate Blanchett gave a very interesting interview on the radio today in which she  gave an insight to her role playing Bob Dylan in the Todd Haynes 2007 film 'I'm not there', describing Dylan as 'chameleon'.
As it happens the Chameleon rose is if flower at the moment. It starts life as yellow, changes to vibrant red flushed with yellow before turning pink and white. Lovely, but a bit prone to black spot on the leaves though fairly easy to remedy with Eco rose fungicide.
 And from Dylan's Blonde on Blonde I like 'Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again....'

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Seedling Buddleja

Most nurseries  have plants which have been sitting too long in the one spot and before you know it, roots have been sent down and the plant has decided to anchor itself to the spot regardless of the constrictions of the pot surrounding it.This Buddleja started life as a tiny seedling which had come up close to another plant in a pot . I recognized the grey foliage so carefully removed it and placed it in a pot of its own wondering what flower colour it might have. Buddlejas are fairly tenacious and quick growing when they find the right spot and this one was no exception. It looks very much like B. davidii 'Ile de France' which has huge flowers of 30 cm or more in length topping a plant which is now more them 2 metres in height. It looks a bit ridiculous emerging from a 20 cm pot and will no doubt collapse with wilted foliage when I eventually move. I am just going to wait until the flowers finish.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pelargonium cucullatum

Often I will acquire a plant without knowing much about  where it is from or how big it grows and what sort of conditions it likes to grow under. I guess one of these days I will get myself a mobile device so I can do a 'net search while out and about. This Pelargonium seduced me with the fragrance of its small crinkly cupped shaped leaves which emit a rich complex scent when crushed. The leaves in fact remind me a bit of a cup cake patty pan.
 Apparently it grows to be quite a large shrub, with a woody base, of a couple of metres in height, in its native habitat of the Western Cape region of South Africa. As it prefers a sandy free draining soil, something which I don't have, it may have to live in a large pot. The magenta coloured flowers, which are just starting to appear, have dark purple feathery markings on the upper petals. and sit like a crown on top of the foliage. This species was used as a parent in the breeding of the 'Regal' Pelargoniums which are a vibrant part of the spring garden scene, though their popularity seems to have waned in recent years perhaps because they are fairly short lived and become woody and sprawling with age. Many of the hybrids have splendid dark almost black flowers.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Marigold 'Striped Marvel'

Marigold 'Striped Marvel' syn.  'Mr Majestic'
This is a heirloom variety of marigold which is said to be of Scottish origin. I am growing it again because it reminds me of summer and striped beach umbrellas and all things relaxing. Something to look forward to in the months to come. Also again I am reminded of that Edwardian period of Australian art as painted by E Phillips Fox and Rupert Bunny.  
Promenade 1909
  E Phillips Fox (1865-1915)
National Gallery of Australia