Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Straw Which Broke the Jackfruit’s Back

 Gardening is not always straightforward and painless. Friday had been a normal winter’s day, and a little windy… but not overly so. I could never have anticipated my awaiting surprise.

Upon returning home, I opened the family room curtains. As I looked toward our most looked-upon tree, there, before me, in its pride-of-place, was the sight of the formerly-symmetrical, heavily-laden jackfruit tree, now seemingly missing one side. Once, where there was the lovely sight of the glossy foliage of the jackfruit tree, now, there was back fence. Surprise? Rather, a shock!

Venturing out through the sliding door and along the bush-rock path, it soon became apparent that one of the major fruit-bearing limbs had split and dropped, the butt of the limb still attached to the trunk. At the other end, the load of jackfruits had landed, undamaged, on the path below. In these situations, one’s first reactions are often irrational or illogical. So it was with me… I tried to lift the stricken, fallen limb in order to see whether, in time, I could possibly raise and re-secure it in its former position. No chance! Then, the better-half came to help. Way beyond our capabilities, if we had persisted, we both could have required traction! It was so heavy! What to do?

The limb had collapsed to ground level

Take a rational approach…

So, back indoors, I cogitated my options. Just like wanting your cake and eating it as well, I wanted to repair the tree AND retain the jackfruits, which, I had surmised, were within two months of harvest.  Having watched with joy the growth and development of our first jackfruit babies, it would be a bitter pill indeed to lose a large proportion of them now. From tiny ‘fingerlings’ in the New Year, we had fervently scrutinised their growth into fruit giants, some up to about four kilograms in weight at the end of June.

The fruits began to develop in January

Returned to rational thought, I checked the internet for repair options for valued trees. Within a short time, I discovered that hanging limbs can be pulled back and bolted, the tree in time repairing the joint in a satisfactory manner… but there was no time to lose: this task would have to be completed within a day or two. To achieve this, the jackfruits would have to be removed. Knowing that immature jackfruits can be used as a vegetable, I was prepared to offer them to some of my friends who could prepare jackfruit curry. No ripe fruit - unfortunately – fresh, ripe jackfruit is delicious. The tree, however, would be intact again. A little disappointed, I would have my cake, but I would not get to eat it…

Lacking the requisite skills and equipment for such a task, I decided to call an arborist, a tree surgeon.

Two of the jackfruits on the collapsed limb

Engaging him on the phone was easy and the negotiations went smoothly… for a while. I explained that the limb had come down in the wind, asking whether there was some possibility of repair by bolting it back to the main trunk. He agreed to come and inspect the tree, to decide whether the limb could be saved. Then, he asked, “By the way, what type of tree is it?”.

Innocently and naively, I replied, “A jackfruit”. There was more than a moment’s silence on the end of the phone. “I am not kidding you. This is an Asian jackfruit tree, loaded with fruit.” He agreed to come the next morning. Saturday. He did not arrive. I called him during the early afternoon to see if he would be coming. He said he was busy on a job and would rearrange the time for Sunday or Monday. He never did.

For the past few days, this experience has rekindled flashbacks of the Dural nursery owner, who informed me that jackfruit trees would not grow in Sydney. Did the arborist think that I was ‘pulling his leg’, making a crank call? It is possible, that, in his whole working career, he has never encountered a jackfruit tree in Sydney, let alone one supposedly carrying its tropical load to breaking point!

A healthy bunch of jackfruits... April

So, my disappointment has me searching for more rescue options. It is too late for the injured limb now: bolting is no longer an option. Am I able to prop up the injured limb temporarily? Prop it just enough so that the fruit are not resting on the ground? Then, keep my fingers crossed that they will continue to ripen by August? Later on, excise the limb: our favourite tree should, over time, repair itself.

This tale has a loose end, however. So that the other main fruiting limb would not meet the same fate, I engaged a handyman to inspect the tree with a view to constructing a stable, extendable branch support… He arrived! Only then, did I inform him of the species of tree. Live and learn…

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…

Monday, 20 June 2016

Cool Climate Starfruits

There are a number of reasons that you would want to grow a Starfruit or Carambola tree in a cool climate, such as Sydney’s. Aside from the delicious fruit which are also remarkably attractive hanging from its branches, the tree, with its lovely, pinnate leaves and graceful, arching habit, is a very shapely one and carries beautiful magenta flowers, edged in white.

Pinnate leaves of the Starfruit tree
Starfruit trees, however, are not a ‘plant-and-forget’ tree. The temperate climate of Sydney is marginal, at best, for these lovely trees, demanding thoughtful site selection before planting, and regular attention after planting.

The important question is, ‘Will they fruit in Sydney?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, they will.’

A magnificent young Starfruit specimen overhanging a fence in Chiang Dao, Thailand

Ripening fruit on the same Chiang Dao tree

First of all, let’s look at site selection. Being of a tropical and sub-tropical origin (Maluku, East Indonesia), they will require a warm micro-climate. Choose a planting location protected from Sydney’s cold, southerly, winter winds… a north-facing situation is ideal. Furthermore, if you have the space for other subtropical trees, this will provide added comfort for the starfruit. In our circumstances, the starfruit is in a north-facing location, protected from the south by the home itself, growing in a small garden area with banana trees, a macadamia and a mango tree.

Even though Sydney is not the natural home of starfruit trees, you must make your starfruit feel at home!

The starfruit tree will also need plenty of water. Apart from natural rainfall, it will need supplementary watering. We keep a bucket in our back shower to catch the cold shower water which falls before the warm flow begins. You know, the water too cold to stand under! Every day, this supplementary water is shared between the starfruit and the bananas. Importantly, however, your starfruit should not sit with ‘wet feet’. It needs ample water, indeed, but it might resent waterlogging over a long period of time. We are fortunate that our back garden has a natural slope which runs excess water away.

Am I making this sound too difficult? I hope not. Remember, starfruit trees are lovely… They are worth the effort.

The pretty magenta and white flowers of the starfruit

Keep it fed! For a young tree, throw around a couple of handfuls of pelletised chicken manure on a regular basis, perhaps every two months, increasing this as the tree matures. At the same time, give it a handful of Epsom Salts, which you can purchase at your local supermarket in the Health and Beauty Section.  Epsom Salts are an excellent source of magnesium, which will keep your plant’s leaves green and healthy.  Water this in.

Finally, never discard your used eggshells. Pound, crush or grind these into a powder, and store the grindings in a container for garden use. Not only are eggshells a splendid source of calcium, but they also contain 26 other beneficial trace elements. Scatter a handful of egg shell grindings every time you feed your starfruit tree.

Oh… Don’t forget the compost! And the mulch!

Developing fruit and flowers
But should I guard against Queensland and Mediterranean fruit flies? 

Definitely! In actuality, fruit flies are more likely to attack and spoil your tomatoes or your capsicums, even your kasturi limes (Calamondins). However, it’s best to hang a fruit fly trap from the outer branches of your tree… Better safe than sorry! Touch wood, we have not lost any starfruits to fruit fly.

Our seedling tree, now nearly five years old, has granted us green-and-gold stars for the past two years. The pretty, little bunches of flowers appear along the branches of the tree in late January and through February and March. We pick our first fruit in late April, with fruit continuing to ripen through May and June. In fact, with the onset of the coldest weather, we pick the fruit from the tree as soon as there shows a little yellow, ripening the greenish fruit indoors... 
A starfruit colouring up in the home garden

Interestingly right now (June), our tree has many little starfruits along its lower branches: I do wonder whether these small fruits will lay dormant over the remaining winter and mature with the warm rays of spring. Or will they drop?

June 'babies'. Will they drop, or ripen in the spring?

Our winter starfruits are not as sweet as Malaysian or Indonesian starfruits. They make wonderful juice, however, reminiscent of the cooling, quenching, iced starfruit drinks to be purchased in those countries. Memories of Asia…

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Recalcitrant Lemon Grass

Well-maintained, lemon grass can be a beautiful feature of any garden. Its arching and weeping stems will contrast with all other plants in an Asian herb and vegetable garden, making it a focal point, a point of interest around which other plants can be displayed.

Come the cooler months, however, one’s lemon grass plants, especially those plants which have endured over a number of seasons, will begin to look rather dishevelled. In our temperate climate, lemon grass will be dormant at this time. There is only one action to take and this is the time to strike…

The pictured plant, resident in its position for more than four years, had become large, wide-spreading and unsightly, with dead brown stalks intermingled with developing and plump green-white ones. Worse still, ‘towering’ individual stalks had fallen across a garden walkway, presenting a road-block and a trip-hazard. The plant had to go!

A word of warning… Take care when working with the leaves of lemon grass. They are apt to cut tender skin, akin to a paper-cut. The use of protective gloves is recommended.

Step 1… Separate the withered stalks from the fresh green ones.

Two well-rooted stalks, fit for replanting

Step 2… Replant. Retain a healthy, rooted stem or two for replanting in a convenient location in the garden.

Decision time... Freeze whole or blend?

Step 3… Now, this is the fun part for those who are swashbuckling secateurs-artists. Trim up your lovely kitchen lemongrass into handy lengths. This will depend upon how well-grown your lemon-grass is, but the pieces should be between 10 and 20 centimetres. Do not discard your waste…

Step 4… Decisions, decisions… The lemon grass lengths can easily be placed into zip-lock bags at this point and simply placed in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator for later use in curries.

Step 5… Some of your processed lemon grass lengths can be blended and stored in jars. This is serviceable for us because we enjoy chicken marinated and stir-fried in lemon grass and chilli.

Do not waste the handy mulch

Step 6… Collect together and recycle all your lemongrass waste: it is an excellent weed suppressant and mulch, so can be utilised in a weedy part of the garden. Otherwise, chop it into smaller lengths and compost it.

When the warmer weather returns, your lemon grass will spring to life again, producing more of its lovely arching green stems, not only for the kitchen, but also for the visual feast.

A healthy, young Lemon Grass plant

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Blossom Time for Zygocactus

So, which family of plants can provide mass displays of colour through the months of May and June? The answer is Zygocactus (Schlumbergera hybrids).

Every May and June, zygocactus will produce their mass display of cheerful, tubular flowers.

May and June are the prime months for the mass flowering of zygocactus hybrids

Native to the highlands of the forests of south-eastern Brazil, zygocactus cultivars have been bred in a range of colours. The most common are in shades of pink and pale orange. However, there are excellent red, white and purple specimens. There are even some hybrid varieties in shades of pale gold.

Zygocactus cultivar 'White Fantasy'

Zygocactus are easy-care pot plants. Because of their origin, they are at home with high humidity. However, they will require just an occasional drink and some feeding with organic fertilisers to keep them healthy. In fact, my boys each had a zygocactus plant in their bedrooms for years. These tough little plants survived this long period of relative neglect, needing little more than a bright window to survive… and still flowered profusely!

An added bonus with zygocactus is that they are easy to propagate from stem segments. So, should you break any of the fragile stems, simply replant them for new pot specimens. 

After flowering, these tip segments can be pinched out and planted...

Zygos are long-living plants: we have two beautiful orange cultivars. These have been handed down to me from my father: at an estimate, they would be from thirty to forty years old. Over the years, some of the stems have withered and died but the plants have happily replaced these with beautiful new growth. Naturally, plants of this age have been re-potted many times. Our other plants are also in excess of ten years old.

A gorgeous hybrid, Strawberry Fantasy... This plant survived years of inattention in my son's bedroom!

Red cultivar 'Blazing Fantasy'

For most of the year, our zygocacti reside happily on a plant stand receiving only morning sun, but as the flowers appear we are happy to bring the plants indoors, for a short time, for beautiful winter colour. Be hesitant to introduce your blooming zygocactus into a home which receives heavy heating… the lovely flowers will wither quickly in these conditions.

Zygocactus 'Millie', a purple flowering variety. 

Finally, give your potted zygocactus an occasional turn. This will promote even, all-round growth. Older zygocactus plants which have not been regularly turned will grow towards the sun, becoming top-heavy and unbalanced.

A young plant of the red cultivar 'Sunburst Fantasy'
Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…