Posted by Phytopath on Mar 30, 2010
Why plan a garden, productive or otherwise?
You do not have to make a plan prior to planting out your garden. It could just evolve and change as your taste changes, but there are definite advantages to planning the garden or brainstorming with the family to find out individual expectations of how the garden will be used.
How many people are in the household? Are there any pets? Does anyone in the family have allergies? Do the pets have plant allergies? How much time can you allocate for gardening and maintenance per week? And the list goes on…..
With a little bit of prior planning, the plants in the garden could grow healthier, meaning they are less likely to suffer from insect attack or fungal diseases. A good example is the correct sighting of a nasturtium plant to lure cabbage moth away from the cabbages.
A productive garden could mean different things to different people but in my mind, if the garden gives me pleasure in any way, be it shade on a hot sunny day, shelter for birdlife, flowers to smell or fruit and vegetables to eat, then it is producing happy moments for me.
The first task for a new garden would be to test the soil.
Texture, structure, pH, drainage, infiltration rates and wettability are all simple tests that can be performed by the home gardener (Details in a future post).
Once you have an idea of your soil type, and its ability to support plant life, then take note of where the sunny and shady spots are, in the garden. Remember that the angle of the sun will change throughout the year as well, so some spots that used to be in shade over one season, may be in the sun next season, and are there any neighbouring trees or buildings that might change the micro-climate of your yard?
If you have pets, especially dogs, where do they run when you open the back door and let them out? That may not be a good place to position the vegetable or flower bed unless you can fence it off.
What about planting aromatic herbs or flowers near windows so you can appreciate their fragrance. But don’t plant too many together or their individual perfume will be lost. Or plant insect repellent herbs near doors and around entertainment areas.
The garden does not have to be lawn in the front yard with a few flowers, a square of lawn in the backyard with a few more flowers and the garden shed, and the vegetable patch out of site. Plants can be mixed harmoniously so that fruit trees, berries, vines, flowers and vegetables all grow happily together. This is often the case with companion planting.
Some fruit and nut trees produce a beautiful show of flowers prior to setting fruit and some of the flowers grown for aesthetic purposes are actually edible. Vegetables come in many shapes, colours and textures and add to the overall appeal of the garden, so don’t hide them, but be proud of your ability to grow home grown tasty produce.
If you like a bit of formality in the garden, why not use thyme, hyssop, chives, lavender or rosemary as a clipped hedge for bordering paths instead of the usual English box. And perhaps at the end of each row you could allow the chosen hedge plant to grow a bit taller and prune it into a pyramid or ball shape. All of the pruning’s could be dried for later use or made into products like herbal ointments or cosmetics or added to food preserves for additional flavour.
If you like a more informal approach, try using parsley as a filler plant in the flower garden or oregano as a ground cover anywhere in the garden.
If you have an area for garbage bins, compost heaps, spare plant pots and a potting bench, perhaps you might like to screen them off by erecting a trellis and planting an edible climber or espalier an edible tree.
Or maybe you would like to grow some plants from a warmer climate that would not normally grow in your area – then how about changing the micro-climate to create warmth. A few well placed paving bricks and stone walls, or even a water feature, may do the trick.
So with some careful planning and a bit of creativity, almost anything can be achieved.
Share some of your achievements.
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 26, 2010
Most gardeners are aware of the importance of light for plant growth, but just how important is it?
Anyone that has ever tried to grow a plant in dimly lit conditions indoor’s, knows that the plant suffers and usually declines or dies. There is no such thing as an indoor plant. Plants grow outdoors, but we choose specific plants that are capable of growing in low light situations. These are usually plants from rainforest areas where the canopy is quite thick and minimal light reaches the forest floor.
Plants need sufficient light (intensity) to photosynthesize and different types of plants require different amounts (sun lovers vs. shade lovers).
Photosynthesis is quite an amazing thing. Chloroplasts within the plant (mainly in the leaves), absorb energy from sunlight, mostly the blue and red spectrum of light (where solar energy has its maximum output). Think of a rainbow and the colours in it, remember ROYGBIV? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Well, plants don’t much like the green part of the light spectrum so they don’t absorb the colour. It is reflected back from the leaf surface or passed straight through the leaf tissue, and that is why plants appear to be green to our sense of sight (unless you are colour blind).
This absorption of light energy is transferred into electrical and chemical reactions which in turn produces organic compounds such as sugar and starch, or carbohydrates (this is an over-simplified description) that the plant uses as fuel for growth.
The second important plant/light relationship is phototropism. This is when plants bend toward a light source. When a seed germinates and the new shoot heads for the sky, it had better not be under an overhanging rock. But what if it is? That’s when phototropism comes into play. Or have you experienced an indoor plant that leans toward the window or source of light and you have to give it a quarter turn every week or so? That’s phototropism.
Plants contain hormones (yes, they can get hormonal just like humans) and one hormone in particular is called ‘Auxin’. This is a growth promoting chemical, also known as IAA, you may have seen it on labels when using products for striking cuttings. Anyway, this auxin hormone is responsible for giving plants that lean-too or banana bend look. When the plant senses that it is receiving light from one direction only, the movement of auxin is initiated and all the little hormones move to the dark side of the plant. Because auxin is a growth hormone, the excess amounts on the dark side of the stem, causes that side to grow faster than the lighted or sunny side. Hence, a curvature in the stem. This can be a real problem for florists who like to work with straight stemmed flowers but keep them in a dark cool room with the door being opened frequently to expose light.
The third plant/light relationship is called photoperiod. Yes, you guessed it. It is the period of light a plant receives. Why is this important? Well it could be why your vegetables bolt to seed when you don’t want them to.
Plants are divided into three groups according to their response to the length of day.
- Long day plants (majority of vegetables)
- Short day plants
- Intermediate (or, ‘I don’t care’) day plants
The long day plants require 12 to 14 hours of uninterrupted daylight to produce flowers and set seed. These vegetables will not set fruit in the glasshouse during winter. Or if its flowers you are growing, they will not flower in the glasshouse during winter (unless you artificially light the glasshouse). Some examples of long day vegetables include: lettuce, spinach, silver beet, beetroot, potato, radish and flowers: Hibiscus syriacus, henbane and Rudbeckia bicolour.
The short day plants require long nights (or short days) to initiate flowering. The critical period seems to be 8 to 10 hours of daylight. Chrysanthemums are a good example of short day plants. They always flower around Mother’s Day in May (autumn) in the southern hemisphere, when the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer. To have Chrysanthemums all year round, growers place black plastic ‘curtains’ inside glasshouses to mimic an extended night period. This tricks the plants into thinking that autumn has arrived and they duly initiate flowering.
The intermediate group of plants will flower and set seed regardless of the length of day. Examples of day neutral vegetables are: peas, tomatoes and French beans.
So if you are still having problems with vegetables bolting to seed or plants not flowering, then there is another reason, for another blog post.
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 24, 2010
Also known as St. John’s bread, but the botanical name Ceratonia siliqua L., derives from Greek keras, horn and Latin siliqua, alluding to the hardness and shape of the pod.
The carob is an evergreen, long lived, medium sized tree, growing to about ten metres high and wide. It is densely branched making it an ideal shade tree and it suffers little from pest and disease problems.
The tree is relatively slow growing, reaching about seven metres in ten years in my climate. The carob is thought to be native to the Eastern Mediterranean region and it grows well in all countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
The carob tree has similar temperature requirements to that of citrus but demands much less water, it is more tender than the olive and its rooting habit is similar to pistachio, meaning the root system is extensive and penetrates deeply into the soil, reportedly up to 20 metres [wow].
Soil requirements for good growth are well drained deep sandy loams but the tree will grow in other soil types as long as they are not waterlogged. Soil type will affect tree size and productivity.
The main growth periods are spring and autumn with growth slowing down once the temperature falls below 10 °C but if the tree is grown in favourable warm conditions, growth does not slow down.
The carob tree is a xerophyte meaning it can survive in very dry climates with an annual rainfall of 250 mm per year. Of course bean production will increase if the rainfall is around 500 mm per annum, or if the tree is irrigated.
Ceratonia siliqua is in the Legume family (same as peas & beans) but interestingly does not nodulate and therefore is unable to fix nitrogen like other legumes. There is however, an association with a mycorrhizal fungi, which can improve general nutrition levels to the tree.
Carob is dioecious with some hermaphroditic forms, meaning that male and female flowers occur on separate trees (just like kiwi fruit). So if you want a good crop of beans you will need a male and a female tree, although there are some hermaphrodite varieties available.
Areas suitable for planting carob would have cool but not cold winters (trees are damaged when temperatures fall below 4°C), mild to warm springs and warm to hot dry summers (sounds like my place). These climatic conditions would occur in areas of the northern hemisphere between latitudes 30° to 45° and in the southern hemisphere between 30° and 40°.
Winter chilling is not required for fruit set but temperatures above 9°C for 5000 to 6000 hours are needed for the pods to ripen. Rain in autumn can also interfere with pollination and have an adverse affect on fruit set. The pods ripen in autumn and are harvested shortly after. Top yielding commercial trees can produce 1 tonne of beans.
Pods (without the seed) can be eaten fresh or ground into a powder after drying. They are an excellent source of dietary fibre (supposedly as much as wheat bran) and pectin, a beneficial fibre that helps the elimination of toxins. The pods also contain many of the B group vitamins as well as minerals, especially calcium. Some sources quote “twice as much calcium as whole milk”.
The carob flour can be used to flavour confectionary, yoghurt, cereals and coffee. It is naturally sweet and prized as a health food. If stored in a cool, dry, dark place, the flour will keep for up to one year.
The seeds (not the pods) are very hard and uniform in weight. All pods weigh almost exactly one carat each (200 mg) which is still the standard measure for gold and precious stones.
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 19, 2010
Achillea millefolium is an interesting plant to grow in the garden.
In areas with a reasonable rainfall, yarrow has the potential to spread, sometimes further than the gardener actually wants and it can become invasive. In my climate, with an average annual rainfall around 400mm (16”) per annum, it is a very well behaved plant.
I like to use it as an indicator plant. That is – when the yarrow wilts slightly or looks droopy, I know it is time to water the garden.
Apart from being a useful indicator plant (in my climate), I found that yarrow leaves were great for staunching bleeding.
Years ago, I suffered from constant nose bleeds and regardless of where I was, at home gardening, visiting friends or at work teaching, I had to deal with bleeding all over the furniture.
If the nose bleed happened at home, I would go to the yarrow patch and pick a few leaves, then shove them up my nose (children, please do not do this at home). What a site – a grown woman walking around the house and garden with green matter hanging out of her nose (my apologies if you have now developed a mental picture [grin]). The thing is – in my case the yarrow stopped the bleeding.
There are more than 85 species of Achillea occurring mostly in temperate climates of the Northern Hemisphere.
The plant was named after the Greek hero Achilles, who used it to heal his soldiers’ wounds during the Trojan War.
Currently, yarrow is known to reduce inflammation and promote perspiration. It is also used to relieve indigestion, relax spasms and apparently is effective in lowering blood pressure. Externally it has been used to treat wounds, nosebleeds (yay), haemorrhoids (ouch); ulcers and inflamed eyes (always seek medical advice).
When made into a tea, the taste is quite pleasing, unlike some herbs, and I have read (somewhere) that it is a good drink to take before going to bed. It apparently relaxes you – but if it is a diuretic, I’m not so sure about taking it before retiring for the night. I certainly don’t like getting out of a warm bed to empty my bladder in the middle of the night.
Achillea has also been used for divination. In China, yarrow sticks are used when consulting the I Ching.
It can also be used in salads and as a garnish%
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 16, 2010
Hedges can be an asset to the garden or they can be deleterious.
The positioning of your hedge or screen will determine which of the above effects will occur.
They can be formal or informal, or even semi-formal and they can range in height from 15cm (six inches) up to three metres (approx nine or ten feet).
A good question to ask your-self would be, “why do I want a hedge?” Perhaps you want a privacy screen from the nosey next door neighbour (visual pollution), or maybe you would like to create a micro climate in your garden so you can grow that special plant. Whatever the reason, the hedge or screen must serve a function, – it must be justified.
Hedges and screens have been used for borders and barriers, privacy, protection from wind, dust or airborne salt, for directing a view or screening a view and even to direct movement by restricting human and animal access. Whatever your reason for choosing to plant a hedge or screen there are some important criteria to consider when selecting the best plant.
First of all the plant must be tolerant of constant pruning and capable of quick rejuvenation. You don’t really want to wait three or four months for the plant to bush up again after pruning.
Next, the plant needs to be low branching with a dense habit and preferably have small leaves. It must be long lived with a moderate growth rate. (If you are thinking of building a maze, you certainly don’t want slow growing plants. People would cheat and step over the top instead of working their way out).
Ideally the plant would be resistant to pests and disease; there is nothing worse than a dead plant or two in the middle of your formal hedge.
The chosen plant must also be able to compete with its neighbours for light, water, nutrients and good root development.
The soil and climate are also important considerations when making your choice of plants.
Some of the limitations or disadvantages of formal hedges include the fact that they are labour intensive, there is significant root competition because of the close proximity of planting, odd plants may die out, leaving gaps and they can often take years to develop to the desired height and density.
On the positive side, screens have more flexibility (as opposed to hedges). They create a soft, natural appearance which is often times more pleasing than a fence. You can create a screen from mixed or single plant species, giving different results.
Chosen plants can be dense in their form or more open, giving a semi-permeable effect and reducing wind velocity. Plants other than small trees and shrubs can be considered. What about climbers on a trellis or containerised plants? Espaliers are also useful and they take up less ground space for the same or similar end result.
So why did I say that the planting position is important? Because if you get it wrong, instead of protecting your plants or garden a hedge or screen can funnel wind, hot or cold, and frost, right onto your desirable plants. Look at your site, know the wind directions all year round and if you are in an area with frost and you are trying to grow frost tender plants, watch the behaviour of the frost and notice where it settles. Frost tends to move much the same way as water does, that is, downhill. It will also build up behind a solid barrier.
Once you are sure that you have things under control (in your own mind at least) get on with the planting. The plant spacing should be approximately one fifth to one quarter of the mature width of the chosen plant and why not think about growing an edible hedge or screen for extra pleasure. Some all time favourites are: – rosemary, hyssop, lavender, dwarf myrtle and lilly pilly just to name a few. If you would like the botanical names just ask me.
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 11, 2010
Canna edulis , known in Australia as Arrowroot and elsewhere as Achira.
The plant can be described as a soft wooded perennial or an herbaceous perennial, depending where it is grown. Growth is approximately 2.5 metres (around 8ft) high and the width depends on the spread of the underground rhizomes. The soft fleshy leaves arise from the somewhat soft, easily bent stems.
The general appearance of the plant is that of the ornamental canna (Canna indica), to which it is related. The flowers of arrowroot are red to orange/gold and smaller than those of the decorative variety.
The plant is thought to have originated in the Andean region because of archaeological remains from Peru. Commercially, plants are grown in Queensland Australia, Hawaii, Central and South America and the Pacific Islands.
I have found Arrowroot to be exceptionally hardy in the garden and easy to grow in my climate. They will grow in most soil types as long as the drainage is good. Poor drainage will lead to rotting of the rhizomes. Most gardening books advise that the plants need full sun for growth and will not tolerate shade but in my garden they are happily growing in the shade of mature Eucalyptus trees (see photo).
During the growing season make sure the plants have adequate moisture (don’t you love that term, ‘adequate’, what does it actually mean?). For me, I make sure the plants don’t get to the wilting stage. During winter, I do not water the plants at all.
Give them a sheltered spot otherwise the leaves can be shredded by strong winds which looks unsightly but has no affect on the goodness of the root. (It’s an aesthetic thing).
The leaves, root and seed are edible. The young shoots are cooked and eaten as a green vegetable and the immature seed are used in tortillas.
The root is used raw or cooked and is the source of Arrowroot. It is rasped to a pulp then washed and strained to get rid of the fibres. The starch easily separates from the fibre of the root and is easily digested.
In Peru the roots are baked for several hours until they become a translucent white colour and slimy or mucilaginous (sounds divine…) and sweet. In Vietnam Arrowroot is grown commercially to produce transparent noodles.
The dried root is high in starch, containing as much as 80%. It also contains 10% sugar and 1% to 3% protein.
I have grown up with ‘Milk Arrowroot’ biscuits available from the supermarket, so I am loath to dig up my beautiful Arrowroot plants that are growing in the garden. Besides, it sounds like too much mucking about to get the actual starch, before you even think about baking biscuits.
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 8, 2010
The Potager, or kitchen garden uses plants – vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers to create a geometric, formal, aesthetically pleasing functional garden. The name potager is a derivative of potage, a French term for soup.
The plot can be small or grand, depending on your needs and requirements. You may be feeding a family of two or cooking for a local restaurant.
The design can be a simple pattern, like a square or diamond, or a complex Parterre with circles within squares, or Celtic knots and intricate designs, creating a tapestry of shapes and colour.
Try growing vegetables with coloured foliage (other than green), like purple oak leaf lettuce, kale or rainbow chard.
The flowers grown in a potager garden do not necessarily have to be edible. They can be grown for colour, or for picking and using indoors.
The formality and symmetry of the potager presents a functional vegetable plot as a decorative garden feature.
The mixing of vegetables with herbs and flowers creates an area full of biodiversity, rather than the usual monoculture found in many vegetable gardens. Because of this ‘mixing’ of plants, there are usually less problems with insect pests and soil borne diseases. A plus for the gardener. Some of the plants could be considered as beneficial companions – companion planting.
Some parts of the potager garden, may have perennial plants, like small fruit trees, berries or roses. These are usually planted in the centre of the beds as the tallest plants and the smaller perennials like strawberries, or annuals like lettuce, are planted closer to the paths. Small perennials like thyme can be used to hedge the beds. If you create a potager within a walled garden, the fruit trees can be espaliered against the wall.
As the annual vegetables, like lettuce, are harvested the now vacant spot will need to be filled with something to maintain the pattern. To keep the visual appeal, replacement plants will need to be the same or similar. For example, a harvested cos lettuce could be replaced with another cos, or a different variety of lettuce.
The potager garden is certainly not low maintenance, but if you have the time and the creative flair, why not experiment with plant form, texture and colour to create an in-ground work of art.
Of course this is relatively short lived. When the season changes and the annuals have been harvested or gone to seed, you will have to start again with another batch of plants.
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 4, 2010
The Australian continent is vast and because of this, the climate is also vast.
The northern regions of Australia experience tropical conditions, then heading south you pass through desert until finally at the southern portion of the continent (the island of Tasmania) you will find cool temperate conditions.
Because of this vastness, there is a huge variety of plants that Australians call ‘Bush Tucker’.
From tropical fruit and tubers, to desert seeds and temperate greens. Today I will cover a plant from each region.
Syzygium spp. and Acmena spp. known collectively as Lilly Pillies. There are over 50 species of Lilly Pilly in Australia and all of them have edible fruit. They range in height from 30 m in their rainforest habitat, to about 50 cm for a miniature garden variety. They are found growing along watercourses so if you wish to grow one in your garden, make sure it has plenty of water in the growing season. The tree is covered with white fluffy flowers over the summer months and then followed by berries that are purple, red, pink or white, depending on variety. These berries can be eaten fresh, made into cordial, jam or jellies. Yummy. A word of warning – do not park your clean white car beneath a Lilly Pilly when it is in fruit. You will be hard pressed to get the stains out.
Lilly Pilly Jelly
Lilly Pilly fruit
Wash the fruit and remove stalks. Place in saucepan and just cover with water and bring to the boil. Cook until the fruit is tender then strain through a jelly bag overnight. Next day measure the liquid and add one cup of sugar for every cup of liquid and bring to the boil. Boil rapidly until setting point is reached (test this by placing some liquid on a cold saucer).Tartaric acid will help the liquid to set. Add one teaspoon per six cups of liquid. Bottle in sterilized jars and enjoy.
Portulaca oleracea, some of its common names are pigweed, purslane and munyeroo. Pigweed can be found worldwide, mostly as a garden or farm weed. Early European explorers to Australia ate it almost daily commenting that it was a substitute for spinach and uncooked, taste like lettuce (I am sure they had serious problems with their taste buds – or perhaps spinach and lettuce have improved in taste since then). Aborigines used the seed, which is 18-20% protein, to make ‘cakes’ which were then traded among the clans. The seeds were collected by placing the uprooted plant, upside down on a piece of kangaroo skin or bark. The seed was then ground between flat stones into a type of flour, then made into a paste and cooked. The thick root was also eaten, apparently having a taste similar to potato.
Tasmannia lanceolata or Mountain Pepper is a cool temperate tree found in moist gullies. All parts of this plant have a hot and spicy flavour but it is the berries that are mainly used as a condiment. The berries are dried then ground and sprinkled over food much the same way as white or black pepper (Piper nigrum) is used, but apparently the heat of Mountain Pepper is stronger and more aromatic. The tree is quite small, only three metres high with a spread of about two metres. The leaves can be harvested all year and the berries harvested in autumn from female trees. Add whole leaves to casseroles or stews but only near the end of the cooking time and remove before serving. The leaves can also be dried and stored in an airtight container. Now I would love to place a photo of Mountain Pepper here for you but I have tried to grow it several times in my garden but as soon as the hot weather of summer arrives, they turn their toes up and die. I have tried three plants over three years but have now decided to give up. I will buy the leaves or berries from the specialty shop instead.
Posted by Phytopath on Mar 2, 2010
Australian bush foods hold the interest of many visitors and locals alike.
Some have become known worldwide, like the Macadamia nut for example, others just remain an oddity. I will briefly list a few of the more commonly found bush foods – common that is, in gardens.
Grevillea robusta, common name Silky Oak, is a stately rainforest tree grown in many parts of the Australian continent as an ornamental. The Aborigines soaked the nectar filled flowers in water to make a sweet drink. This tree has one of the richest sources of nectar.
Leptospermum spp. known locally as tea-tree. These shrubs were used as a tea substitute by botanist David Nelson and gardener William Brown of the HMS Bounty in 1788. They are beautiful plants commonly grown in many gardens for the profusion of white flowers.
Kunzea pomifera, or Muntries to the locals. This unattractive ground cover is often found in coastal sand dunes or dry sandy desert areas. The plant fruits best in alkaline well-drained sandy soil. The fruit, a fleshy edible capsule, looks smells and tastes like a miniature apple. The berries can be eaten fresh, on their own, or in a fruit salad, or dried or frozen for later use. They are very nice stewed or made into jam. The Aboriginal people of the Coorong in South Australia dried the fruit and then pounded them into cakes for trading among the clans. Today Muntries are grown commercially in plantations.
Enchylaena tomentosa, common name, Ruby Saltbush. Many people consider this plant to be an annoying weed. It is a spreading groundcover with greyish coloured leaves and is found in arid regions and coastal locations. The plant is well adapted to saline soils. The fleshy leaves can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable and in the MacDonnell Ranges; the fruit were soaked in water to make a sweet tasting tea.
Marsilea drummondii, known as Nardoo. The leaves look somewhat like a four leaf clover but the plant is actually a fern. It is found in colonies on river flats and in swamps. When the plant is grown submerged in water, the leaves float, but when grown in the soil, the leaves and stalks stand upright. Nardoo is the infamous plant known in Australia as the food which Burke & Wills ate, when they starved to death.