Indulgent Pet Photo Alert

Alright, you’ve been warned!

Our cat, beautiful as she is, did not qualify for the title of ‘dumb blonde of the cat world’ for no reason. Only in the past two months has she finally worked out that the polyhouse is a lovely warm place to be. She’s even taken over one of our self watering pots to make the perfect cat bed. Perhaps she’s not so dumb after all.


Putting down roots

Per usual I am thinking about winter … planting that is. Always at the height of summer as we hide indoors from 37 degree days we have to start thinking about getting seedlings off and running for winter. Our summer crops have been haphazard to say the least and some of this is due to insufficient advance planning.

Anyway TB has got the carrot seeds into the ground and shooting which is some achievement in the current heat. Here’s how he did it. Forget about thinning your carrot seed out with sand. The whole point about carrot seed, from our perspective, is that its quite small and there is generally a lot of it in your seed packet, let alone the vast amounts you can harvest if you collect your own seed. There is no doubt that the seed is better off in the ground than on the shelf so don’t be afraid to sew it thickly.

Now you don’t even need to sew your seed in rows. TB normally just broadcasts it over the area he intends to plant. Just to be contrary this time he’s gone and sewn in rows. Whatever! Just cover your seed with a fine layer of soil and water with a fairly fine spray so the seed settles rather than washes away. The trick is now to keep your seed moist as it is so fine and close to the surface it will dry out even on a mild day.

Here’s our bed covered with some old hessian cloth we found in the shed.


Anything will do, a bit of shadecloth, an old sheet, some old painting drop cloths just get it on the surface and give it a water as well. You need to keep an eye on your seeds and water them every day in hot weather as they will sprout fairly quickly. Our carrot seeds were planted on the 24th of January and came up by the 28th.

As you can see there are lovely thick rows of seedlings.


Of course you can’t leave the hessian on for too long as the seeds start to get caught up in it and pull out of  the ground when you roll it back to water. So TB’s next move was to make a series of hoops out of old irrigation pipe (which seems to be growing in great abundance behind our shed) which are threaded through with some thickish wire cut longer than the irrigation pipe so the ends can get pushed into the ground.


Et voila! ready made shade tunnel which we put the previously mentioned hessian back over to keep the sun off during the day. We are taking the hessian off during the morning to allow a bit of sun onto the plants, and then putting it back late morning which is easy enough on the weekends. On working days we’ll leave it until after work to remove the hessian.


Now if you are worried about having to thin your seedlings – don’t. Our tried and true method is to just start picking them, even at a very small size and add them to your salads or steam them with your other veg. This is foodie ‘micro-veg’ at a ridiculously small stage and can only be achieved in the home garden. Of course at our place we will expect to lose a certain percentage to snails and slugs, but there will be enough left to feed you for months. Each time you pick choose wisely and the remaining plants will grow to fill the spaces.

The Thoughtful Gardener, or Back to the Fuchsia

For once that pun is not one of my own crafting. The author is Robin Lane Fox, Fellow and Tutor in ancient history and Master of Gardens at New College Oxford, who has been writing his weekly gardening column in the Financial Times since 1970.

I think back to those ‘halcyon days’ of the public service (or so the early 1980’s seem now) when the pale orange airmail weight Financial Times was circulated around the office with it’s list of names, stapled to the front page, each name duly crossed off by each reader. Not being an economist I would hold out for the weekend editions which had the arts and gardening columns. Arthur Hellyer and Robin Lane Fox would duly educate and amuse. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t growing most of the plants they talked about, their writing was completely engaging. Lane Fox could be devastating in his criticism of trends in commercial flower offerings. A particular assault on stripey, frilled, multi-coloured petunias still comes to mind.


I was really please to pick up his latest offering at the library. The book is a series of short pieces, widely ranging in both topic and location across and covering a number of personalities in the world of gardening. But be warned, Mr Lane Fox is not persuaded by organic gardening, wildflower gardens or encouraging wildlife in the garden. I’m happy to disagree with him on all of these points and still get a lot of pleasure from his prose.

 One of the most engaging aspects of his writing is his ability to blind-side you with his unexpected observations. By way of example he talks about his swimming pool which he unfortunately lost interest in swimming in just as it was completed. He continues “For years Mother Nature has had the pool to herself and has turned it into a dramatic wilderness of self-sewn buddleias and bullrushes. They are being sustained on a diet of the naturally drowned hedgehogs which float upwards in the winter months. For years I have been hoping that the pool may spontaneously generate human life. Better still, it may prove the Bible right and present me with a female helpmeet, a muscular clone of Eve. At least she will not need a work permit.”

Once you have got a few good basic how-to gardening books on the shelves there doesn’t seem to be much else on offer unless you go into specialist fields or design your garden books. Lane Fox reminds you that there is a whole lot else of interest in the world of garden plants.This book is great ‘summer reading’ whether you ever lift a trowel or plant a seed or never make it out of your chair.

Lane Fox still has the ability to engage and entertain a reader in all aspects of gardening, as might well be expected from someone who says that “I  began when I was ten years old and by the age of twelve was a seriously keen grower of alpine plants. I have continued ever since, widening the range of plants which I have known, grown and killed personally.”

Thoughtful Gardening Robin Lane Fox, 2010, Particular Books (an imprint of Penguin Books).  Available from the ACT Public Library.




Better Days

In contrast to my sulking solanums some other crops are revelling in the high rainfall conditions. My strawberries are gi-normous, particularly the Red Gauntlet variety. If I can beat the snails to them just a few fruits are large enough to fill one hand.


Thrusting ever skywards are our Golden Bantam Corn. In the picture you can see TB holding a piece of wood that is three metres long. When the photo was taken earlier this week the corn was already higher than the post and they have put on even more growth since.


The critical focus of the corn crop at present is their pollination. The male flowers are on the top and the female proto-cobs with their silky tassels are in the armpits of the plants below. We did an inadvertant pollination experiment with our corn last year. The corn was planted in several clumps around the garden. Out the front I left nature, via the wind, to deal with pollination. In the back garden TB literally took a hands on approach and shook the plants violently to send the pollen down onto the corn silk.

Much as it grinds me to admit it the backyard corn had a much better pollination rate. The cobs filled out evenly whereas the ones in the front garden were a very mixed bag. Some were full and others only had the odd full kernel on the surface of the cob. So if you see someone violently shaking their corn stalks don’t call the plant protection authorities, its all for the good of the plant.

Sulking Solanaceae

I find it hard to believe that after all this time I have two, yes two only, green tomatoes on my plants. Like many other people have found this year the relatively cool and wet weather has put a decided dampener of the tomato crop. And my eggplants aren’t doing much better.

Of course our limited success is due to the fact that we have been trying to grow our tomatoes and eggplants from seed. So far I think we’ve sewn each crop three times. My success rate? one tomato plant about 25 cm high. The rest have never made it much past the two leaf stage. More pragmatic friends just went out and bought their plants. We were finally saved by M who gave us a supply of her self-sewn seedlings.

As for the eggplants we did end up having to buy seedlings to supplement the few heirlooms I managed to get into the garden bed and growing. All appeared to be going well until earlier this week when I discovered that all my remaining heirloom seedlings had been gobbed by snails and slugs AGAIN!!!! Alright I’m taking long, slow, deep breaths.

The one bright spot on the Solanum scene are our potatoes. We haven’t done a full harvest yet, just the odd tuber bandicooted from the end of the row but the results are promising. So far we’ve picked Red Norlands and Dutch Creams. We have yet to dig for King Edwards, Bismarcks and Pink Eyes (“you know they have marvellous topical creams for that these days”). Once we have cleared these away we will be putting the ground aside as the location for our new chook shed! Now that’s something to look forward to.

The Museum of Economic Botany

I don’t know how many years I’ve been waiting to get into this gem of a museum. Mostly its been due to not being there on the right day or at the right time and then it was closed for restoration. But now at last I have been able to visit the Museum of Economic Botany and it has been well worth the wait.


The building is a ‘Greek revival’ style and was commissioned in 1879 by Dr Richard Schomburgk, the second Director of the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide, and was first opened to the public in 1881. The principal architect was William Thomas Gore, but additional design and architectural oversight was provided by  George Thomas Light and Edward John Woods, who was Architect-in-Chief at the time of the construction. An interesting aside for the architecturally minded is that Woods went on to form various partnerships including one with Walter Bagot in 1905 establishing the well-known architectural firm Woods Bagot which is still prominent today. Canberra residents may be familiar with one of their more recent buildings 7 London Circuit which houses National Information Communication Technology Australia (NICTA).


A look at the window decorations gives you an idea of the decorative style of the architecture. The palmette motif above the window is also repeated in the interior decorations. Inside the building there is a beautiful timber ceiling painted a pale duck egg blue with decoration picked out in gold. The ceiling decoration is in original condition.


Around the walls a frieze runs just underneath the ceiling and there is also a dado frieze around the middle of the walls. All of the wall paint was submerged under an overcoat of government grey paint in the 1950’s. When the restoration was first contemplated a section of the original dado frieze was uncovered. Given the good condition of this frieze it was decided to expose the original frieze rather than reproduce it. The artist of the internal decorations was James W Williams.

On the inside you get to the heart of the matter, a museum designed to demonstrate “the ‘value’ that the botanical world brings to our society and the importance of plants in our way of life”. It is one large room, roughly divided in half with a series of central display cases containing examples of individual plant families. Around the wall stand cabinets containing collections of related objects such as displays of ‘fibres’, ‘timbers of the world’, ‘cereals’, including the wheat collection made by SA farmer Don Whiting from 1970 to 2009. The other half of the building has been given over to an exhibition space.


Just trawling around the display cases took a long time and I was continually and fascinatedly distracted by the cabinets with their artistically monumental displays reminiscent of those at the produce halls of the Royal Easter Shows. As can be imagined many of the specimens need to be regularly replaced. Recent specimens are freeze dried and result in strangely pale versions of themselves as can be seen in the case which contains members of the brassica family.


But sometimes the contents are older such as these pea and bean seeds,


and some are those orginally obtained for the museum. The latter include their superb papier mache apple, pear and mushroom displays made in Germany by Heinrich Arnoldi and Co. The fruit is hand painted in the most remarkable detail and is of interest not only for its depictions of many fruit varieties which are no longer in production (let alone existence), but as historial artefacts in their own right. This is where the museum just gets it so right, acknowledging and higlighting all the layers and complexity of its displays.


The receipt visible in the bottom corner of display cabinet is for the sum of £2/1-10 (or in translation two pounds, one shilling and ten pence), as “payment for a consignment of artificial fruits and mushrooms“. And here are the mushrooms!


The coloured labels were designed to differentiate the edible and the merely digestible from the poisonous (the current signage does indicate that these are not a reliable guide!).

If all this was not enough the museum has commissioned two magnificent contemporary works. Fiona Hall’s amazing work Like a Shady Grove is so in tune with the museum that at first I struggled to decide whether it was an original ‘Victorian ‘ or a contemporary piece. (Sorry about the crap photo quality as no flash was allowed and I was wildly excited at the time). With all the exquisite cabinetry detailing and inlay, the myriad Buddhas inside and the gnarled root on the top it is a close thing, until you noticed the small label discreetly placed on one side.


In the exhibition space master designer and maker Khai Liew has constructed a free-standing exhibition enclosure of Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). This houses temporary exhibitions. Currently on display is The Garden of Ideas: Imagining the Australian Garden (until 27 February 2011).

I can only agree with Peter Emmett, the Project Director and Curator for the MEB refurbishment (2004-2010), who quite rightly describes this museum as a “delerium of delight and drowsiness”.

Losing it

Decortication – I love that word particularly when it relates my gum tree shedding its bark. At this time of year the gums do their big shed of leaves and bark, another one of those local seasonal markers I’m interested in. I had barely started raking up under the two Eucalyptus mannifera on our nature strip when a passing junk mail deliverer felt the need to express the opionion that gum trees are so messy! It wasn’t too much longer before a neighbour came over to share the same view (as well as wishing us a Happy New Year).

Why is it that cleaning up after a gum tree is seen as inherently more difficult/time consuming than raking up after an oak tree? I’ve done both and really can’t see any difference unless it is not slipping on the acorns.

So the magpie, who enjoyed having someone else turning over the leaf litter for him to find some grubs and I will just get on with the job.


The Amazon Waterlily Pavilion

The earliest incarnation of this building, Victoria House, was established in 1868 and was re-built in 1957. All that remains of the original is the pond which houses both the Amazon Waterlily (Victoria amazonica) – the one with the humungous leaves – and the Blue Nile waterlily (Nymphaea caerulea).

The outside of the building has been transformed from the Victorian-style glasshouse of my first visit, to this amazing contemporary structure. 


What I really like about this building is the attention to detail, including the doorhandles


and the etched glass waterlily design of the main doors.


Once inside, the building is dominated by the central pool. Unfortunately this is not the right time to see the Amazon Waterlily flowering. The foliage of the Amazon Waterlily with the spiky underneath of its leaves, evident even in its new growth, is interesting enough.


The Blue Nile Waterlily was more obliging in the flowering department.


The overall effect of being inside the building is one of being underwater. As you can see from the picture the pool reflects circular glass panels in the ceiling that mirror the giant waterlily leaves below. 


The machinery for operating this pavilion is all on display. To the northern side are the ventilation windows,


between this outer wall and the central pool is an orchid and bromeliad garden.


Here the massed plantings make their own decorative display.


The building is a credit to the architects Flightpath Architects, who for reasons that remain unclear are not credited on the Botanic Gardens website.

Adelaide’s Botanic Garden – The Bicentennial Conservatory

We’ve just had a short-ish trip to see the rellos in South Australia and a visit to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens was high on my list of ‘things to do’. Even the remark of one young family member, that they couldn’t see why anyone would think plants were interesting, didn’t put me off!

There are three main areas that I wanted to visit this time around, the first was the recently restored Museum of Economic Botany (MEB), the Amazon Waterlily Pavilion and the Bicentennial Conservatory. These are all centrally located in the garden the MEB and Waterlily pavillion being literally next door to each other, (each of these will have it’s own seperate post),

The Bicentennial Conservatory (designed by Guy Maron) is the most visible structure in the gardens, it’s humped-back shape resembling a glass Uluru. This is the one part of the garden where an entry fee is payable ($4.90 per adult or $10.20 per family 2 adults + 2 children). Entering the conservatory removes you literally and figuratively from the Adelaide landscape.The humid atmosphere providing a relief from Adelaide’s hot dry summer days.

While I have visited rainforests in Queensland the proliferation of palms and other thickly growing tropical vegetation still surprised me.


Clearly the plants are loving it here and quite a few are finding the conditions so congenial that they are fruiting as well.


There was plenty of action in the flowering department as well. Two very striking plants were the Rangoon Creeper (Quisqualis indica) with its clusters of pedulous jasmine-like red flowers and the Red Hot Cat Tails (Acalypha hispida), following image.


There were also a few remaining flowers on the showy Powder-puff tree (Barringtonia racemosa) which is native to a wide range of countries around the Indian Ocean (including Australia) as well as parts of the Western Pacific.


My favorite part of being in the Conservatory is when I here the motors hum into life and then I know that the misting system is about to come on. This quite prosaic activity designed to maintain the conservatory humidity at 70-80% never ceases to surprise me with its atmospheric transformation of the building.


Once outside again it is worth a quick walk along the length of the building to have a look at the fountain made of glass at the other end of the building. Called  ‘Cascade’, it was designed by Sergio Redegalli and has 500 precision cut pieces of 6mm clear glass glued to the shape of a cascading wave. Clearly the local wildlife is enjoying it!


There was one quibble I had with the conservatory. Several terrariums with appropriate signage, apparently abandoned and in one case literally containing a mouldering dead Huntsman Spider, were all that was to show of the gardens much publicised use of insects as control species within the building. I have every sympathy for the difficulty of maintaining such displays – but – if you can’t maintain them please clean them out and remove the signs and the debris! It just made the building look rather shabby and neglected, not the effect I presume the gardens were trying achieve.

In the pink

We were out walking the dog with our relatives the other day and decided to walk around the oval of the school my young relative attends. Luckily the school had the foresight to plant some mulberry trees, although sadly for the pupils the trees bear fruit in the school holidays. What to do?

It was a good thing that the dog had decided to keep his legs crossed because the only plastic bag we had was the one we would have used to pick up any mess he left behind. We picked 1.5 kgs of fruit in just under an hour and left still more fruit ripening on the trees.


I can only agree with Leslie Johns and Violet Stevenson (Fruit for the Home and Garden) who say of the mulberry fruit “We think that they are at their best when eaten straight from the tree with cream.” Actually I’m happy to skip the cream. We were all somewhat of a sight on the way back home as we couldn’t find anywhere to wash our hands.

The first product of our labours was a fruit smoothy which was a delicious shade of hot pink.


After stashing a kilo of fruit in the fridge, a mulberry tart on a creme patssiere base was prepared – which we did eat with cream, not to mention gusto!