Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fruit Thinning

Longer days, warmer weather, gentle sunshine – what’s not to like about spring?! The occasional blasts from the Antarctic to remind us that we live near Melbourne no doubt. And the wind. Ahhhhh the wind! During my childhood the September/October gales thinned the bumper blood plum crop on the plum tree outside the kitchen window. Every year was the same and every year we would be left with a carpet of small rock hard green balls that it was my job to pick up. It was probably just as well because if they had all survived to adulthood we would have been even more inundated with plums than we already were. My mother made plum jam by the bucket load and then when we were sick and tired of plum jam she would add a tin of raspberry jam to the pot and call it plum and raspberry jam. Stewed plums were also on the menu and maybe this is the reason that I’m not that fond of plums in any way, shape or form to this day.

Which brings me to the topic of thinning fruit. As I watched the apple blossoms unfurl yesterday I thought ‘this is going to be a bumper crop’. The trouble is the tree won’t be able to carry such a heavy crop to maturity. If all the apples hang on until harvest the weight of the fruit will break branches – I know because this happened once and it ruined the shape of the tree. A huge crop will also inhibit the development of flowers for the following year resulting in the classic ‘biennial’ bearing syndrome (ahhh so that’s why that happens!). In commercial orchards thinning is undertaken by spraying the trees with chemicals that cause some of the fruits to drop. In the home orchard we need to thin by hand.
Thinning is best carried out before the fruit is half its mature size. As a rule of thumb the smaller the fruit the closer together they can be. For example thin apricots and plums to about 10-15cm apart, whereas apples and pears would be thinned to 20cm apart. Apples and pears also produce their fruit in clusters so each cluster should be thinned to one or two fruits depending on how big you want your final fruit to be. If you want your Granny Smith to produce huge apples for baking whole in the oven (stuffed with raisins, sultanas and drizzled with golden syrup – yum!) then leave only one fruit per cluster. If you want to produce smaller fruits suitable for the kids’ lunchbox then thin to 2 fruits per cluster. Always remove damaged/blemished fruit first followed by the very small fruit.
Thin fruit with a pair of sharp scissors or better a pair of small sharp secateurs. Aim to leave the strongest and best shaped. If you google ‘fruit thinning’ you will find multiple references including some You Tube clips. After thinning cover your fruit trees with netting because you can bet your bottom dollar that the birds will discover your carefully thinned crop is ripe long before you do!
Elsewhere in the garden all the bags of manure have finally been spread, anything that needed cutting back has been cut back and plants are shooting madly everywhere. I finally got around to planting the potatoes yesterday (Pink Eye and Ruby Lou) as well as some rocket and carrots. Now is not a good time to plant rocket as it will probably rocket to seed as its name suggests; but if I keep it fed and moist I might be lucky enough to pick some leaves before it goes to seed. The current crop of rocket is in full bloom and setting lots of seed for the next crop. The snow peas are reaching for the sky, as are the broad beans. The rhubarb is begging for a feed as its new leaves emerge and I spread some pelletised chook poo on all the citrus trees last weekend. Its spring, the sap is rising and plants need to be fed!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Winter is here

In late June in a last burst of vibrant colour in the garden I was gobsmacked at the energetic display being put on by two contrasting plants. The yellow centred purple flowers of a hybrid tree dahlia called ‘Timothy Hammett’ look great next to a mass of the butter yellow copper canyon daisy Tagetes lemmonii. Both shrubs are over head height and covered with flowers. They are such reliable early winter bloomers adding a real zing to the garden and providing the bees with some last minute sustenance. Also looking good was the pineapple sage/salvia whose red blooms are much frequented by the eastern spinebills. The purple Mexican sage was also a splash of colour as was the deep blue of another sage called ‘Anthony Parker’.  Also looking good in a more muted fashion were the pale pink, delicate, double flowers of an abutilon. It’s taken almost a year for it to settle in and grow, but it was worth the wait! Abutilons haven’t done well in my garden during the drought – I think they appreciate and will do better with a moist soil. However this one has finally hit its straps and I counted half a dozen flowers hanging from the plant which is only 1m tall so far. Abutilons come in a wide range of colours and are an old garden favourite: certainly one of mine. However we have now had a few hard frosts and the dahlias are no more, the salvias have dropped the last of their flowers and the abutilon is flowerless. The sole splash of colour is provided by the tagetes which is still covered in blooms.

The soft-leaf buffalo lawn has had its final cut – it won’t need doing again until October. Conversely the back lawn which is composed of cool season grasses (and a lot of weeds) is just revving up for its growing season! The pincushion hakeas (Hakea laurina) are looking particularly good this year and a new cultivar called ‘Stockdale Sensation’ is a very pretty improvement – more pink than the usual red. The last of the autumnal tints have vanished – the reds and oranges of the smoke bush, the purple berberis and deciduous photinia, the yellow of the forsythia and the oranges and yellows of the weeping apricot. The last of the roses have finished flowering – butter yellow ‘Graham Thomas’, soft pinky apricot ‘Abraham Darby’, red ‘Red Pixie’ and lolly pink ‘The Fairy’.

Fragrance in the garden adds a welcome dimension to the outdoors and I was brought up short by a gorgeous perfume in the air the other day. It was the flowers on the Flinders Range wattle Acacia iteaphylla that reliable autumnal bloomer. I bought mine as a ‘normal’ plant but it has turned out to be a mutation and it has taken a ground covering form rather than growing into a large shrub. The flowers still smell sweet though and cover the plant in balls of soft yellow at this time of the year.
In the vegetable garden the silver beet seedlings are beginning to thrive and seedlings of coriander are popping up. I think I’ve had a failure with the crimson flowered broad beans – the seed was a couple of years old and hasn’t come up. Still it’s not too late to sow another crop – but this time I’ll use fresh seed. I must put in some broccoli seedlings and leek seedlings and sow some onion seed. So many jobs to be done and no time after work to do it because the sun is disappearing as I arrive home from work. On a brighter note it’s great to see the daffodils pushing their way through the newly moistened soil. I saw some early jonquil types flowering the other day so ours won’t be far behind. I can’t wait to see the multitude of shades of yellow, cream, white and apricot dancing on top of their slender stems in late winter.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Goodbye Indian Summer

And there goes our Indian summer. Almost overnight it seems we’ve gone from air conditioners to heating. Suddenly you no longer sweat while working in the garden but need a scarf around your neck and a beanie not a sunhat on your head. Yuk! I love our Indian summer and every year mourn its departure.

I’ve been trying to get into the garden and pull out a few weeds but with my return to full-time work I am finding it hard to find the time. I did spend a lovely couple of hours last weekend pottering around pulling out a few weeds; hoicking out a self-sown Euryops pectinatus that was threatening to take over; planting a few bits and pieces and generally checking everything out. The euryops is actually a tough South African survivor – you’d know it in an instant. Bright yellow daisy flowers, bright green foliage – like a marguerite daisy but with green leaves. This one appeared from out of the blue and was quite well behaved during the drought but went ballistic after the rain and tripled in size swamping everything around it.

The rain really has had an amazing affect on all gardens not just mine over the last 18 months. So many things have finally grown! It makes you realise just how much they were hanging on by the skin of their teeth during the drought! My Chinese windmill palm has doubled in size as has the Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea. My poor little struggling pomegranate has grown heaps as has Salvia ‘African Skies’ (which comes from South America – go figure!). I decided I liked the ornamental grass Miscanthus transmorrisonensis better than the one I had and it is looking fabulous after only 12 months in the garden – lots of fluffy cream plumes waving in the breeze held well clear of the foliage unlike my Miscanthus ‘Sarabande’. It looks a little like a mini pampas grass – and as we don’t plant them anymore it’s a pleasing facsimile.

I bought a new variety of tree dahlia 2 years ago and it has tripled in size! Dahlia ‘Timothy Hammet’ was named by NZ breeder Keith Hammett for his late son and is a cross between two unusual tree-type dahlias. It’s supposed to be an evergreen bush all year long, but in our climate it does die back to sticks in winter and then resprouts from the base. It grew madly in spring and these long whippy growths flopped to the side. Then in late summer new upright growth came from the centre and the plant now measures 3m across by 2m in height! It is producing a plethora of bright purple blooms at the moment and looks great next to a Tagetes lemonii in full golden bloom.

After the first autumn rain the other night I ran around in the dark with a torch squashing snails and sprinkling some snail pellets on the most susceptible plants. There is nothing worse than seeing the emerging leaves of the fabulous Haemanthus unfurl with huge holes in them because one snail was hungry! It quite ruins the display for the next 7 months. The last of the autumn roses are blooming, its time to resow the sweet peas because the first batch didn’t come up and plant the remainder of the plants in my little nursery in the ground. Oh and I mustn’t forget the vegetable garden – time to plant out the garlic! And the broad beans! Mustn’t forget the broad beans otherwise there will be no broad bean and garlic oil pasta in spring.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


I thought the time of plants dropping dead overnight had passed but it seems not. The hot temps in early January took their toll on a 10 year old Banksia marginata that was about 4m tall. It looked like it was growing splendidly and then the next day it was dying. I suspect that the wet spring had rotted some of the peripheral roots and when a day with hot temperatures arrived, it was too much for the remaining root system to cope with, so it gave up the fight!

The soft-leaf buffalo lawn ‘Palmetto’ has drawn lots of favourable comments from visitors. I didn’t have to start watering it until late January. Then when there is no rain I water it with pop-up sprinklers for 30 mins a week and this has kept it looking cool and green all summer. The occasional weed has been easily winkled out with a daisy weeding fork and I threw some lawn fertiliser about a week ago during a brief shower of rain. So far I am very happy with it – traffic areas do not look marked and it only needs edging every month or so from October to February. It is performing much better than cool season grasses (such as rye, fescue, bluegrass or bent) that need much more water to stay green.

Have you noticed that some plants in your garden are looking a little stressed or wilting? A bit of spot watering will probably fix the problem but then it reoccurs. Are there a few plants in your garden that regularly wilt? Perhaps it might be a good idea to group these plants with similar water requirements together and then you can water that area easily without having to traipse all over the garden spot watering here and spot watering there. This is one of the 6 pearls of wisdom offered by Kevin Walsh in his little gem of a book “Waterwise Gardening”. Yes we have enjoyed over 14 months of regular rainfall where everything in the garden grew and grew. But ‘La Nina’ will move on, the climate will go back to ‘normal’ and waterwise gardening is the way of the future. Who knows when the next drought will rear its ugly head? So place plants according to their water needs – put moisture loving plants in damp places and put plants that appreciate good drainage on a raised mound or in a raised garden bed. This will be far easier to maintain in the long run than plants mixed up all over the place. For example hydrangeas and succulents do not make good bedfellows!

Now is also a good time to cut the seedheads off the agapanthus to stop their seed ending up germinating all over the place. This is especially important for anyone who lives near the bush – which probably means most of us! And never dump agapanthus (or any other plant for that matter) in the bush. This just creates a huge headache for others – usually volunteers – who then have to remove it.

There is not a lot of colour in the garden at the moment. White plumbago, red cannas, blue salvias, Big Red pelargonium, pink and white gaura and purple verbena are the stand-outs. But the beds are full and the contrasting foliage colour and forms holds your interest. In the vegetable garden we are living on sweet corn, tomatoes, purple king beans, Sebago potatoes and cucumbers. The butternut pumpkins have set a lot of fruit so I should have a lot of pumpkins to harvest in late March. Late March will be soon enough to plant some winter crops like broccoli, leeks, onions, broad beans, peas and silverbeet. The orchard has been visited by successive flocks of rainbow lorikeets, musk lorikeets and rosellas so there are hardly any apples left. The birds look like jewels scattered through the trees and I didn’t have the heart to shoo them away.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February Already!

It seemed to be a slow start to summer proper this year, but the heat over the New Year period reminded us gardeners that although we have been blessed with lots of rain, the summer heat is not to be forgotten in the garden. I hope with the easing of water restrictions that you haven’t gone back to the bad old days of sprinklers left going for hours and driveways hosed down instead of using a broom! My sole concession to the increased moisture in the soil thus far, is to replant the red cannas that have been languishing in a pot for years.

I had a lot of work to do in the garden just before Christmas. Many of the annuals that looked so good over spring were finishing and needed to be removed as they were smothering neighbouring plants. This included all the poppies, sweet peas and the love-in-the-mist (Nigella sp.). I really must thin them out next year so only a few grow to maturity as when they die they really do leave a hole in the garden bed. Weeding has been a never ending priority too in a way I have not seen for over a decade. The compost bin has been full to overflowing with prunings and weeds. I am amazed at the smokebush Cotinus ‘Grace’ as it has not stopped growing since spring. It seems each day I spot another whippy growth reaching for the sky. These I have shortened as they have appeared and then several shorter growths are produced with alacrity. I am also considering giving the purple berberis a haircut as it has grown nearly 500mm all over since spring!

I thought I was going to lose the white plumbago during the big wet as it didn’t grow very much; what little growth it produced had blackened and withered tips and its leaves turned yellow. However it struggled on and is currently covered in flowers although still with yellowish foliage. The dwarf white agapanthus that I have planted along the street frontage also looked like giving up the ghost before the drought broke, but the clumps have tripled in size and are currently in full bloom.

In the vegetable garden the sweet corn that I planted in November is almost as tall as me already – I don’t think I have ever seen corn grow so fast. My tomatoes are growing well and I have harvested my garlic – both the Tasmanian type and the Russian or elephant type. I am also starting to harvest my brown onions. I am so proud of this crop as it is the first time I have ever successfully grown onions! They were sown from seed in situ which I think is a big plus and I only fed them with a phosphate based fertiliser as well as a sprinkling of lime as onions love lime. I bought 4 seedlings of Waltham Butternut pumpkins at the Woodend Farmers Market and these are beginning to grow really well, so I am hopeful of getting some pumpkins this season as I got not one last year!

In the native Australian garden the annual everlastings (Bracteantha sp.) that I planted as seedlings in May last year have formed large plants covered in fiery orange flowers. These close up on dull or rainy days and look quite awful but on sunny days the flowers open wide and make a great blazing show contrasting well with the purple flowers of the brachycome daisies. The Victorian Christmas bush (Prostanthera lasianthos) put on a great show too. My bush is almost 3m tall and this is the tallest of the mint bushes. The lomatia has doubled in size and is smothered in flowers. This plant was really starting to struggle towards the end of the drought and I thought I was going to lose it. The kangaroo apples (Solanum sp) are covered in purple flowers too and I have spotted the odd seedling popping up around the garden. These are short lived large shrubs or small gangly trees so it is good to see a few replacement seedlings coming on that I can easily transplant to a suitable location. I hope we have welcomed in a great year for gardening and perhaps a return to the ‘normal’ weather patterns pre the 1990’s. It has been great seeing the growth in the garden due to the drought breaking and I look forward to the future with interest.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Garden Opening and other things

So what was the stand out plant at the garden opening that everyone wanted to talk about? Well the ‘Cobalt Tower’ echiums drew a lot of comment standing well over 3m tall. The striking fuchsia pink flower spikes of Beschorneria septentrionalis also drew a lot of comment – seeing as it was at the front gate it grabbed everyone’s attention. And the carpet of pink Erigeron 'Elsie' also drew a lot of comment. But many people were curious about the turquoise flowers of Ixia viridiflora (seen left) just coming out in the Fairy Garden. This South African corm produces a flower in such an unusual colour it always invites lots of comments.

The garden is so full of growth and so full of colour! Flowers everywhere, bees buzzing madly and the honeyeaters and blackbirds sounding their alarm calls when the currawong comes to prowl. It’s still such a joy to be able to dig a hole and see the soil is moist all the way down! And so much easier too. However the work is never done and after the opening I went around lightly pruning some of the excessive growth on such things as the smoke bush Cotinus ‘Grace’ and pulling back the poppies from smothering the aster. Euphorbia characias wulfenii needed its spent flower heads removed to let through the new growth. The bluebells have long finished and need their spent flower heads removed although it doesn’t really matter. The sweet peas are still flowering their little socks off and I pick a bunch to bring inside and perfume the house every second day.

In the vegetable garden I have planted my tomatoes, sweet corn and basil. Seeds of pumpkins, zucchini and cucumbers are popping up in my little greenhouse as well as several different types of lettuce. The rhubarb is going gangbusters as is the asparagus patch which I have just fertilised and mulched. I have also thinned the apples and fertilised the olive trees and citrus trees which are covered with flowers.

Have you noticed how full and leafy the trees are? A year of regular rainfall has obviously encouraged trees of all kinds to put on a huge amount of growth. I particularly noticed this as I was driving up the hill from the petrol station out of a neighbouring town. The street trees seemed to be shading the road much more than before. It makes you realise just how drought stressed they must have been. I certainly noticed how vigorously the weeping elm at the railway station was growing, after thinking in years past that its end was nigh. I nominated this tree for significant tree status earlier this year but was knocked back. If we could find out who planted it that might help with a reapplication. I worry that the bitumen that has been laid right up to its trunk will not be good for its long term health.

Do you know in Victoria that anyone can nominate a tree for significant tree status for any tree, anywhere? Just go to and click on Trust Register scrolling down to Tree Nomination Form. You must supply a map and photos with each nomination. You need to read the questions carefully but it’s pretty straightforward. There are ten categories including such things as horticultural value, particularly old and particularly weird etc. If you think the tree doesn’t warrant National Trust nomination, try nominating it to your local Council/Shire. This places it on the planning overlay making everyone aware of the tree and its importance.

Another thing I have noticed is how well the bottlebrushes (Callistemon sp.) are flowering this year. This genus is such a hardy one able to cope with drought once established but then making a wonderful comeback when it rains. I have seen some amazingly vibrant colours around the town – pink, yellow and purple as well as red. Cut back hard after flowering and they will put on a heap of growth. Don’t forget now is the time to be mulching your garden. I bought a tandem trailer load (I½m) of mulch from the shire depot the other day for $31. We might actually get to enjoy our gardens over summer. It looks like we may not have much watering to do!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Open Garden

Well another opening done and dusted. About 100 on Sat - the weather was glorious despite all forecasts and I even got a little sunburnt. Then it rained all day Sun - not heavy rain - more like a continual fine mizzle (mist/drizzle). It kept everyone away and only about 30 visited. As the day wore on we added more and more layers in an effort to keep warm. Even had to put up the gazebo to protect the gatesitters! Oh well you never can predict the weather so one good day isn't bad I expect. Its just that I still have a lot of plants to sell.....