Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Mango Surprise: Nam Doc Mai
7cm of Nam Dok Mai mango

This is an exciting time of the year for those with young mango trees as the fruits begin to form and enlarge after the spring flowering. One wonders whether the profuse flowering of the youthful trees will lead to a successful, but small, harvest of fruit. This is also a time for reflection about the growing characteristics of the trees. So where do we stand?

Our Nam Doc Mai seedling is our mango surprise. Despite regular spraying many of the flower panicles blackened off, while a large number of immature fruit appeared to have suffered damage, either from fungal attack or from damage due to a small hail storm which we experienced in November. These damaged fruit were quickly shed from the tree. 

A smaller fruit

This month, however, our disappointment turned to surprise and excitement. When clipping away the remnant flower stalks, two lovely little Nam Doc Mai fruit were uncovered on the interior of the plant. Is it possible that their interior location protected them from hail damage?

Mindful of the splitting of last year's first two fruit, fertiliser will be withheld until harvest. Furthermore, we will be very careful not to over-water. Being only in its fourth year, the tree will require some water if dry weeks are ahead...

You can follow the progress of our seedling mango trees over the past year by clicking on the mango label of the blog.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Water for Butterflies

Just as butterflies require food sources in a garden setting, they also need a source of water. With the continuing development of our front yard, we have recently prepared two water sources.

The first was the purchase of a pedestal bird bath. It is never filled completely, acting as a shallow water source. Within the bird bath we have placed 'perching' stones, places upon which the butterflies can land to drink... Needless to say the bird bath elicits visits from our local birds too! 

 Our most recent inclusion is rather simple: a pot drip tray. It has been arranged in a similar way to the pedestal bird bath, except that it has been placed at ground level. Over time, the tray will be edged with low growing flowering plants and flat native rock... at the moment it is rather like a sore thumb!

The idea for providing water sources came from simple observations. One butterfly visitor was photographed resting on a rock in our fish pond, while another beautiful migrant was observed seeking water from a patio after the garden had been watered.

At this point we cannot claim success with our plantings and arrangements for the front butterfly garden... However, we are encouraged. Below are some recent sightings...

Monarch butterfly on paving
Caper White drinking from wet paving
Common Crow butterfly feeding on Kasturi Lime flower

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas Tomatoes
The Colours of Christmas

Part of our history, a wonderful cultural tradition, Sydney home gardeners have for decades striven to produce their first ripe tomatoes, ready for the Christmas dining table. Tomatoes are the colours of Christmas. They are the taste of Christmas.

A tradition under threat!

Ripening Rouge de Marmande Tomatoes
Sydney's current unsustainable development threatens the cultural tradition of the backyard garden. The headlong rush to create massive high-rise developments in urban 'hubs' with the concurrent need for major road and rail infrastructure projects comes at a human cost. The more we price young families out of the housing market, the more we force people into high-rise housing developments and the more we promote the sub-division of traditional blocks of land by building 'granny flats', the greater the likelihood that we will lose an important cultural tradition... The words, 'sustainable development' are rarely uttered by our leaders.

Five home-grown varieties
It has been a good year for tomatoes at this address. The fruit is abundant and well-coloured and the dreaded fruit fly has not arrived in large numbers... touch wood! We have protected our crop with a Cera Trap. However, it has not trapped a single fruit fly to this time.

Tomatoes are not an easy crop: you cannot simply plant and wait. They require regular watering, plenty of mulching and fertilising, protection from the dreaded 'fly' and in wetter years you need to beware of fungal problems. However don't let this deter you: a home-grown tomato is worth two from the shop!
Mini Tiny Tim tomatoes contrast with a single Sweet Bite 

Our favourite variety is Rouge de Marmande which is an early ripening large variety. However, we also grow Beefsteak and a low-acid yellow variety. Our miniature tomatoes include Tiny Tim, Sweet Delight and Sweet Bite.

I would encourage everyone to continue a wonderful Australian tradition and grow your own tomatoes. 

Friday, 18 December 2015

The World's Largest Free-Flight Aviary

Egret admiring waterfall
Located in the scenic Lake Gardens, the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park is truly worth a visit. Covering an area of about eight landscaped hectares, the tropical gardens of the Bird Park are divided into a number of thematic sections, presenting the time-pressed traveller with an opportunity to witness and observe some remarkable bird species, albeit in a controlled environment.

Beautiful Koi Pond
Be prepared to allow plenty of time for your visit. There is a lot of territory to cover in Kuala Lumpur's legendary heat and humidity, and water is a must. 

One has the opportunity to hand-feed some of the 'residents' such as the famed hornbills, the macaws and parrots. However, the range includes many species of water-birds, melodic bulbuls, colourful lovebirds, statuesque flamingos and friendly, flightless birds.

Flamingo Pond
Regardless of the birds, the landscaping is beautiful. Enormous tropical trees provide cover for many other splendid plant species set around and amongst waterfalls, ponds and running water. There is even an opportunity to cool down walking behind an artificial waterfall.

Very close to the Bird Park is the Kuala Lumpur Orchid Park. In the near future I will post some photos of this superb floral presentation. 
Victoria Crowned Pigeon
'Perhaps I'm a little broody'

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Kangkung Adventures

So close to our kitchen door, so close to my Malaysian memories... Every time I exit our family room I am taken by the giggles as memories of an 'ill-fated' fishing expedition return. Memories of water hyacinth and kangkung!

The 4WD packed, we made straight for our favourite fishing pond, an abandoned tin mine, through Kuala Lumpur’s early morning traffic. With provisions for a long day, we were armed and dangerous. Watch out, toman. We are coming for you!

On arrival at 'our' pond we knew that we would have a struggle on our hands simply launching the tinny. However, we persevered using a wooden off-cut to push the boat through the massing water hyacinth and kangkung plants. How could one resist the attraction and challenge of rising toman fish in the nearby shallows? They would be 'ours'! So, against better judgement we launched our craft.

Alas nothing! Such a beautiful day for fishing but nothing. Regular rises of feeding fish, cooler than normal… nothing. I saw the sipping toman babies and foul-hooked a fingerling. Hours of casting to rises. Sore arms and shoulders. Nothing but a picnic on a boat!

Throughout the afternoon the breeze had parted the massed water hyacinth and opened up our favourite fishing spots but it also blew the weeds across the lake towards our point of embarkation and disembarkation. Still the staunch warriors that we are, we kept fishing, somewhat uncomprehending of our impending plight.

Finally at 5:30 we decided that we should head for shore because it might be a little difficult to guide the boat through the dense stands of hyacinth. It was so wide, perhaps 50 metres wide. Our first attempt to pierce through the angry weeds was fruitless. What would we do? It was impossible to motor or drag our craft through so much dense greenery. 

We sought a new point of disembarkation, just along the shore, where the massed weeds were just ten metres thick! Barging through the tangle of hyacinth and kangkung took some time. I hacked the kangkung with a knife while Ben propelled the boat forward with a paddle. Then we switched roles. Inch by tiring inch we attained the shore.

Once ashore my mate set foot for the car. I unpacked the boat and waited, taking photographs of the sun setting over the placid pond and of a goose. So appropriate!
Unbeknown to me, there was no direct passage to the car. Ben was forced to seek help from a local who dinked him on his motorbike… seven kilometres around the pond! 

When Ben returned with the 4WD it was darkWe loaded the car, then huffed and puffed the boat up the first bank, across a dusty expanse, then up a slippery second embankment. Finally, almost completely exhausted we were able to slide the boat up the back of the 4WD on to the roof racks... Worried women awaited us.

We have grown the green-stemmed variety of kangkung (water spinach) for the past three seasons. Not the easiest care of vegetables, it can be grown in garden beds. However, it demands plenty of water and nutrition: as I water my little potted plants, I water the kangkung. For us, it responds best in locations sheltered from full sun and strong, drying winds.

Without a doubt it is one of our favourites, a pleasant summer and autumn stir-fry treat, because it cannot be purchased in stores in our neighbourhood. The leaves and young green stems are the choice parts of the plant for cooking. The thicker, hollow stems require extra cooking time.  

Kangkung is a plant which keeps on giving. Harvesting the plant above ground level allows secondary shoots to develop from lower nodes. It cannot tolerate winter frosts, so must be replanted from seed early in spring. 

Saturday, 21 November 2015

An Infrequent Visitor

This season we have prepared our front garden with many species of flowering plants with the prospect of attracting butterflies to our home. One or two species have begun to show.

Over the past two days we have been blessed with visits from a beautiful, white butterfly with black markings. On the underside of its wings are additional yellow markings. This butterfly would appear to be a Caper White (Belenois java), an infrequent visitor to Sydney.
A Caper White Butterfly drinking from our path after
we watered our vegetable garden

The Caper White is commonly found west of the Great Dividing Range where it feeds on capparis species bushes (Capers). So why is this showy creature present in our garden?

Over the past few days, Sydney has been subjected to intense heat (40C+) and westerly winds emanating from the hot deserts and inland areas of the country. These winds appear to have carried the Caper Whites well off course. In fact, while driving yesterday, we suspect that we saw a veritable cloud of Caper Whites flying north across the Greystanes area. This occasional phenomenon is recorded in other available websites. 

One wonders what food plants these remarkable creatures can uncover in an urban garden such as mine under these conditions.


Sunday, 15 November 2015

Out With the Old

Another step towards the completion of the landscaping of our property has been achieved with the erection of a new side fence. The old fence had served its purpose and had become a danger to our garden-loving grandchild.

The new 2.1 metre structure provides us with added privacy and security. Most importantly, it allows us to concentrate on the landscaping of this side, the access side of the home: the final plantings and landscaping need to be appealing and attractive.

As to be expected, some damage was suffered by our plants during the building process. However, with some judicious pruning, feeding and mulching our precious plants will recover. 

Time is a great healer for gardens.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Let Nature Take Its Course... Self-Seeding Vegetables
A bed of self-seeded choy sum

If you are prepared to allow your vegetable patch to take on a relatively untidy appearance for a short time, you should consider letting your best veggie specimens flower and then set their seed. Allowing vegetables to self-seed is allowing nature to take its course. 
The beautiful flowers of coriander

Some vegetables are ideally suited to this method of cultivation. Pictured right is a bed of self-seeded choy sum plants. Pick them when small and young: if allowed to 'mature' (or if they experience a degree of water stress), they can take on a slightly bitter taste. Then allow one or two of your best specimens to flower and run to seed. When mature the seed pods will brown, the precious seeds dropping into your garden. Make sure to collect some of the seeds for your seed bank for future use.

When the season and weather conditions are favourable, new plants will sprout and you will be rewarded with an abundance of baby choy sum plants. 

After two crops, 'rest' your garden bed by planting a rotational crop - peas and beans are the best. Fertilise and mulch well.

In the background of this photo you can see the white flowers of coriander. Coriander is a perfect subject for this method of cultivation, along with yao mak (little gem lettuce) and wo sun (celtuce). Try it also with kai laan, other Asian greens and even radishes and carrots.

An Unusual Find

I have chosen the title for this post guardedly. For me, this is something rather unusual, which had me seeking on-line help to uncover its identity. Having read various sources, however, I have now discovered that this is a common fungus of the east-coast of Australia. So what have I learned about this peculiarity of my front yard?

This is Aseroe rubra, more widely known as anemone stinkhorn or starfish fungus. Its basic structure you can see from the photograph... a red starfish shape with divided arms. However, the 'starfish' sits upon a white stalk, which apparently can grow up to 10 centimetres in height. The stinkhorn is completed by a layer of brown slime. It is from this feature which the fungus derives its common name: the slime emits a foul odour in order to attract flies which then spread its spores.

From the photograph you can see that Aseroe rubra is in a mulched section of my garden. This is one of its favoured habitats.

Personal discoveries like this are part of the fascination of gardening.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Mango Flowering... What a Difference a Year Makes
View 1... Maha Chanok seedling 2015

Flowering season for Sydney mangoes is coming to an end. Of interest to me was to study and compare the flowering of our Maha Chanok seedling tree - now in its fourth year - with photos taken this year and last.

View 2... Maha Chanok seedling 2015
The four photos displayed in this post were taken on the same day, November 3rd, in the respective years. Quite clearly, the Maha Chanok seedling has produced abundant flowers in 2015. However, the setting of juvenile fruit is sparser and less advanced. Keeping in mind that this tree produced its first three mangoes last March and April, it will be interesting to compare the quantity and timing of its bearing in 2015... First appearances would suggest not to set one's hopes too high! 

The final photo is representative of the flowering of our Nam Dok Mai seedling, also in its fourth year of growth. It has flowered densely and appears to be setting many more juvenile fruit than the Maha Chanok, although its flowering is lagging behind its counterpart. Last year's first crop split and dropped. Perhaps we will be rewarded with a small first crop this year.
View 1... Maha Chanok seedling 2014

View 2... Maha Chanok seedling 2014

Nam Dok Mai seedling 2015

Saturday, 31 October 2015

An Interesting Garden Artist
Spring 2014

For only the second occasion we have made a sighting within our garden of the St Andrew's Cross Spider. Normally, spiders would not hold my attention. However, this spider is hard to miss with its distinctive white silk zig-zag cross within its doily-shaped web.
Spring 2015

Our first sighting was last spring. The female St Andrew's Cross Spider had constructed a web within our macadamia tree at just about head height. Luckily, the web was not in a high traffic area of our garden and could be avoided.

This spring morning, I have stumbled across another beautiful web and spider within a small grove of Alstroemeria plants, a remnant plant from the old home garden, prior to our demolition and rebuild. This web could easily have been overlooked if not for the flowering of the alstroemeria lilies.
Mae Wang, Thailand, July 2014

The females have a banded upper abdomen with two yellow stripes underneath. When inactive, they sit astride their cross with their legs paired. In the second sighting this morning the spider appeared to have made a capture and was holding its 'victim' with one pair of its hind legs.

I am by no means an expert on spiders. However, there is excellent information on the website of the Australian Museum regarding the St Andrew's Cross Spider.

As an aside we have seen a similar species of cross-building spider at Mae Wang Waterfall in Thailand.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Delightful Resident

Yesterday we were blessed when one of our garden friends 'popped by'. 'Tonguey', the Blue Tongue Lizard, was lounging beneath our recycling bin when I removed it for emptying. Despite the overhead clamour, he was unworried and allowed me time to collect the camera from within the house before he meandered off into the cover of some flowers beside our driveway.

It has emerged from discussions with our neighbours that we have a colony of blue tongue lizards: the animals have plenty of cover, provided by our gardens, from 'feral' cats in our area, and they have ample places to sun themselves in the warmer weather.  

I love the blue-tongues: they help clear my garden of pests such as snails and slugs, causing little damage to the vegetation. However, there are two members of this household who are less enamoured of 'Tonguey'... especially when he is sunning himself on the front doorstep! Gentle 'Tonguey' must wonder what all the commotion is about!

We have been fortunate to have had resident blue-tongue lizards in our past two Sydney homes: there are many, many suburban Sydney-ites who will never have seen these lovely members of the skink family. Blue-tongues can grow to a size of 60 centimetres, although 'Tonguey' measured just 25 centimetres... a strapping young lizard, indeed.

Blue-tongues will bite if handled, but they are not venomous. In fact, if they sense any danger they are content to wend their way slowly to a safe haven. 

If only my photos could have shown you the beautiful, flashing, blue tongue...

Saturday, 24 October 2015

A Kaleidoscope of Colour: Chillies

Chillies are a must-have inclusion in an Asian-style garden. Not only will they reward you with their warming culinary delights but also provide rich layers of colour to vegetable or even flower gardens.

From miniature rosettes which hold their colourful fruit high above the foliage, through plants forming 30 centimetre tufts to much taller varieties, some attaining 120 centimetres or more, chillies are a reliable and easy-care plant.

The instant attraction of chillies is the eye-catching glossy colour of their pods. There are varieties of chilli, however, which can best be described as curiosities for the unusual colours of their leaves... Some are almost black in hue... others exhibit varying patterns of variegation. 

For those people like me who have an addiction to the consumption and planting of chillies, they are a rewarding garden subject. Close-planted, many chilli plants will readily cross-pollinate producing, in the next generation of plants, a wonderfully unexpected bounty: plants with varying leaf and pod colours, and even growing characteristics (upright or pendant fruit) differing from the mother-plant. In time one can build up one's own catalogue of chilli varieties!

In September and October every year we plant out seeds of our most valued chillies. Some are selected for their usefulness in the kitchen, whereas others are selected for their beauty in the garden setting. Nevertheless, after three years of dropping fruit we are blessed with hundreds of adventitious plants each spring. Some of these pioneers are allowed to grow in the prospect of gaining more unusual hybrid plants.

Evidence of cross-pollination in planted seed.
Note the black-leafed juvenile plant.
In Sydney's climate, well-cared for chilli plants with suitable protection from frost will survive into a second season. Cut the plants back hard when the danger of frost has passed. Feed your plant well and your chilli will 'resuscitate' as the weather warms. Let's note, however, that some varieties of chilli, for example, the famous orange habanero chilli, must be re-planted every spring: no level of care in our cooler temperate climate will save it.

Our chillies provide fresh fruit from the end of October until June or July. In addition we collect chillies for drying and grinding. In this way we always have an overflowing supply of chilli for the kitchen. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

A Welcome Addition to the Kitchen Menu

A small, late summer gift from a close friend, our pea eggplants (Solanum torvum) have grown remarkably throughout autumn and winter,suffering little damage from frost and cold weather... so unlike the larger fruiting cousins.  At the moment our largest plant stands at 180cm, resplendent in its first star-shaped white flowers, no doubt stimulated by its location right beside a nourishing compost bin.

We will need to be a little careful to collect the berries of the pea eggplant. We have been warned that the seeds within the berries might sprout upon dropping, spreading weed-like... Our first impressions of this plant are that it is very easy to grow, since it has received no special treatment from us.

Apparently native to Central America, Pea Eggplants are common throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia. In Thailand, it is commonly used in curries. Pea eggplant (terung pipit) is sometimes used as the basis of hot sambal dishes in Malaysia. This is a vegetable we have never cooked with, so culinary 'experiments' appear to be necessary.

Incidentally, the terung pipit appears to be a favoured home of spiders. One of our plants is clothed in large beautiful webs, the other has a little translucent, brown eight-legged resident. My theory is that the spiders like the protection afforded by the hairy and slightly spiny stems and twigs.

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden...

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Kaffir Lime flower and fruit
Spring is a splendid time in the Sydney garden and one of the great pleasures is the flowering of citrus trees. Their rich green leaves contrast beautifully with the clean, white flowering buds... and then there is that fragrance!

Kaffir Lime flowers ready to burst
The flowers of the Kaffir Lime (limau purut) last but a few days. Each small group of flowers appears quickly, swells then opens within just two or three days. Unless you are inspecting your Limau Purut daily, you might miss its lovely little blossoms! 

A lovely single Limau Kasturi flower
Our small tree is quite old. For many years it lived in a pot in a warm location in southern New South Wales... not an ideal climate. Then it moved to Sydney living in its pot in a shaded location... Is this lime-abuse? For the past three years it has been in its current garden location, near our kitchen in a raised garden bed. For the first time the plant, now eight years old, is beginning to thrive. It has been "killed with kindness" receiving heavy doses of organic manures, seaweed emulsion, lime and pounded egg-shells, and our own rich kitchen waste compost, along with regular sprays of eco-oil to deter the leaf-munchers. Of course, because of its raised location, it must be watered well on a very regular basis.

A group of developing Kasturi fruit
The Limau Kasturi differs from the Limau Purut. Where the Limau Purut bears groups of flowers, the Kasturi tree bears many single flowers in its dense foliage over a long period of time. For this reason the Kasturi bears throughout the growing season, resting only through the winter months.

It is also a quick-growing tree. Three years in its location, this purchased plant is over two metres high already.

On the other hand, the pink pomelo tree bears great bunches of large pendant flowers. With such an abundance of flower, the plant emits the most remarkable perfume, especially noticeable at night. 

First Kasturi fruits of the season
The individual flowers resemble white bells. They are a particularly beautiful sight being in such profusion. One wonders whether a mature tree will provide such a spectacular floral display.

The pomelo is famously grown in Ipoh where limestone soils are the norm. For this reason, the plant will appreciate regular dressings of lime. Of late we have been pounding our discarded eggshells, which are high in calcium, and side-dressing the citrus trees with this. The pomelo is also a heavy feeder. Feed it well and regularly, and give it plenty of water in dry conditions.
A single bell-like pomelo flower

Our tree, a purchased plant, has been in location for the past three years... This is its third flowering, and we are hoping that it is strong enough to bear its first delicious fruit next year. 

Flowers, fragrance and fruit... Fantastic citrus!

A typical bunch of pomelo flowers

Is there a luscious pomelo in this mass of flowers and juvenile fruit?