Sunday, 17 March 2019

Garden inspiration: Rain!

Another long dry spell in Illawarra has finally been broken with some decent rain. What more inspiration could you want to get out in the garden, or perhaps take a wander in a local nature reserve, and see how the plants are doing? You might prefer to wait until it's fine again, but the rain is making many plants look just beautiful at the moment. 
If you go down to the woods today...
Some plants' leaves really catch and hold the water droplets. 
Coffee Bush (Breynia oblongifolia) leaves hold the 
raindrops beautifully.

Sheoaks (Casuarina and Allocasuarina species) also hold onto
 the raindrops. 

Orange Thorn (Pittosporum multiflorum) does't show
 many individual droplets, but it glistens in the rain.

Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum aethiopicum) is another
 'glistener.' This patch of ferns is quite sparse at the
 moment but will look lush and green in a few weeks.
And random late entry the Small-leaved Bleeding Heart, which has
 raindrops aplenty on some leaves, and none on others!

An interesting rain-related phenomenon is that of the foaming tree. Here's a blog post on the reasons why this may happen. 
A Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) producing soapy
 foam during rain. This could just be a completely
 natural process, or the result of the rain interacting
with chemical pollutants that have built up on the
 tree's trunk during a dry spell. 
And of course, rain really gets things happening in the plant world. Rain, particularly with a thunderstorm or two attached, helps some seeds to germinate. New seedlings, and indeed many plants, tend to grow better with natural rainfall than with town or tank water. 
Seeds of Giant Pepper Vine (Piper hederaceum) starting to germinate
 after a bit of a rainy period. 

Seedlings enjoying the rain. (You can't actually see them singing, but
 I'm sure they are!)
Of course it's also a great time to put in new plants if you have them. Hope you find a few ways to enjoy the rains!

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Try growing: Red Kamala (Mallotus philippensis)

If you're looking for a small cute tree to grow in your Illawarra garden, one that you probably haven't heard of before or seen in nurseries is Red Kamala (scientific name Mallotus philippensis). It could fit the bill, particularly if you have a bit of shade across the garden.

And if you're not looking for a small tree to grow, maybe Red Kamala will change your mind. It's really cute!
A Red Kamala tree growing on the slopes of Mount Keira. 
It has a somewhat shrubby habit but will probably lose more 
of its lower branches with time. Image by Elena Martinez.

This young and shrubby Red Kamala can be seen 
growing at the Wollongong Botanic Garden, near 
the administration building. Image by Emma Rooksby.
Red Kamala will typically get to around 5m tall, or sometimes a bit higher. It may be shrubby in appearance, but will eventually form a tree shape - or you can give it a bit of help by pruning off older branches once it has reached 3m or so. The crown is usually rounded and fairly neat, giving the tree an attractive appearance overall. It grows best on well-drained soil and with a bit of shade, so if you already have a larger tree in your garden you could add one of these. It can also be grown in full sun, where it might need a bit of extra water. 

The flowers and fruit aren't particularly spectacular. But one interesting feature of this species is that its sap is sucked by a (relatively) appealing insect - the Mallotus Harlequin Bug - that only lives on Mallotus species. This probably doesn't do the plant a whole heap of good, but won't generally do it much visible damage. And according to the website linked above, the mother bugs 'demonstrate parental care by guarding the eggs and young nymphs from predators.' (Hat tip Elena Martinez for alerting me to this bug!)
The amazing-looking Mallotus Harlequin Bug
hanging out on the fruit. Image by Elena Martinez.
Red Kamala is not widely available but there are places you can buy it now and then. Do you have one growing?

Monday, 18 February 2019

Get active: Ask for more street trees!

One for Wollongong LGA residents - now is your chance to comment on the adequacy (or otherwise) of tree canopy cover in our suburbs!

Council is running a summer shade study, and is calling for residents' observations on shade on local streets and other areas, like bike tracks and footpaths. Here's the link:

Please log in and record the streets that you think need more shade. You can also identify streets that already have good shade cover. And there's also an 'Other' category, where you can register...I guess...Other concerns. 

Go to it folks!

Monday, 11 February 2019

Try growing: Brush Pepperberry (Tasmannia insipida)

It's been so hot recently, who doesn't want to spend a bit of time hanging out in a cool, damp, shady rainforest? Or you can create a bit of a rainforest feel at home by growing this fabulous local plant: Brush Pepperberry (or Tasmannia insipida if you want the scientific name).

Brush Pepperberry is a shrub of the rainforest understorey; you can see it growing in damp, shady places such as the Mount Keira Scout Camp. While in natural settings it is often rather leggy, it may be much bushier if grown in a garden.
Not the best shot, but this bushy plant is growing well
 in a sheltered spot in Keiraville.
Brush Pepperberry does best in a semi-shade position, in rich, moist soil, and will benefit from a bit of extra watering in long dry periods. The narrow strips of land either side of a typical suburban house is a good spot to try it. It can be grown underneath taller plants, like as Coffee Bush (Breynia oblongifolia) or any number of trees such as Guioa (Guioa semiglauca) or White Aspen (Acronychia oblongifolia). 

Like its more famous relation Mountain Pepperberry (T. lanceolata), the fruit of this species is edible and has a strong, aromatic, peppery flavour. The fruit can be used, fresh or dried, as a substitute for regular pepper.
The fruit are attractive and edible too. 
Fully ripe fruit have the strongest, most peppery flavour.
 Image by Kath Gadd.
Are you growing Brush Pepperberry? How do you use the fruit, or do you leave them for the birds?

Monday, 7 January 2019

How to: pot up Blunt Greenhood Orchids (Pterostylis curta)

Growing orchids isn't for everyone. But there are many interesting orchids native to the Illawarra, and some of them are really quite simple to cultivate. Here's a quick and basic how-to on repotting Blunt Greenhood Orchids (Pterostylis curta), probably the easiest local ground orchid to grow. The same technique can also be used for most other local Greenhood Orchids.
Blunt Greenhood Orchids that have been growing in a pot for two years.
If you're lucky enough to get hold of a plant in a pot, that's a good first step. Enjoy it! But 1-2 years after that it will need to be repotted, to give it room to grow and provide fresh soil that will help it flourish. It will have produced new tubers below the surface, and repotting will allow you to separate these out and grow new plants from them.

Repotting is best done in summer when the original plant has died right back and the leaves are more or less invisible. 
My pot of Blunt Greenhood Orchid in December 2018, showing the
 leaves more or less dead. This plant is ready to pot up!
Step 1: Preparation.
Before you start you'll need to prepare a bit. Gather yourself:
- 1 or 2 extra plant pots, ideally low pots specifically made for growing orchids. If you don't have those, take a regular plant pot, and cut it down so the side walls are about 10cm high. 
- potting mix
- river sand
- well-rotted native plant humus (optional extra)

Here's a tray holding the mix I used. 60% native plant potting mix,
20% river sand and 20% well-rotted humus from the local Blackbutt trees.
Step 2: Extracting the tubers from the original pot
Blunt Greenhoods grow from an underground tuber. After a decent year of growth, the plant will produce a few 'daughter tubers,' that grow out from the main tuber via stolons. These are what you will be moving into the new pots. 

Water the original pot well. Next, turn the pot upside down, very gently, perhaps onto your tray of potting mix, and tap it to encourage the soil to fall out in a single mass. You will probably see quite a few daughter tubers growing around the edge of the soil mix, particularly if it has been a good year. 
This shot shows the soil that has come out of the
up-ended pot - the small creamy-white spheres are the
daughter tubers. They were mostly clustered around
the edges of the pot, towards the bottom. 
Step 3: put the tubers into new pots
Once you have extracted the tubers it's time to put them into new pots. Before you do so, gently separate the tubers from the soil they were growing in and mix the soil into the potting mix mixture that you've prepared. This will ensure they have some of their original soil with whatever soil magic it contains. 

Fill the new pots to around the 1/4 full mark with your prepared potting mix. Place the tubers gently onto this soil layer, and then top the pot up with more of the potting mix. Water in well.
Orchid tubers potted up. The leaves in these two pots were added
merely for decoration. They had more or less died off, but I left them
 on top of the soil to remind me of the good growing season these
 orchids had had in 2018.
Step 4: Ongoing care
I haven't potted up this species before, but they need to be kept moist, not wet, during their period of dormancy (through to autumn). Once they put out new leaves, more regular watering and the occasional application of very weak liquid fertiliser may help them thrive (though I have never bothered with this!). With luck your orchids will give an even better display than they did the year before. 
In full flower: Blunt Greenhood after three
 years in a pot and thoroughly ready to pot up!
Happy growing!!

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

How to: cope with the exploding population of feral deer

Do deer wreak havoc in your garden or on your bush regeneration site? If you do, you're not alone! The Illawarra region is currently besieged by several species of feral deer, which have colonised the escarpment and are now moving down into the suburbs. They do immense amounts of damage. Deer can eat and destroy seedlings, trample understorey plants, knock over saplings, and even (fatally) ringbark large trees.
This by no means the worst a deer can do to
 a young tree! Image by Judy Lockhart.
Absent a comprehensive regional eradication program, individual landholders are reduced to dealing with the problem garden by garden, and block by block, at our own expense. It shouldn't be this way, but in the meantime, what can you do to repel deer? 

There are no easy answers. Fencing your property is one option, though many type of fence will also keep out other species such as wallabies and echidnas. Fencing that is relatively open for the first metre above the ground is more likely to allow other animals to visit. 
The informal fencing used on this bush regeneration site  is made of weed
materials such as Lantana and Privet, woven together to create a temporary
 barrier. It is designed to exclude deer and wallaby but would also stop other
terrestrial animals such as echidnas.
Another possibility is protecting individual plants, although this is labour intensive and also rather unsightly. Protection can be provided using commercially available plant guards, or a range of other materials. For example, fallen branches, carpet offcuts, bamboo matting, prickly plants or even unpalatable shrubs and grasses could be used to surround a plant. 
Creatively re-used bamboo matting is used
to protect this Pink Hibiscus (H. splendens).
 Image by Judy Lockhart.
It is also possible to use a combination of plant guards and other materials to deter deer.
Here a plastic tree guard is supplemented with the
 spiny climber Cockspur Thorn (Maclura 
While effective, this approach is not suitable in
 any area where the spines may hurt people!
Local plant species that can help deter deer from attacking tree trunks include: 
  • Cockspur Thorn (Maclura cochinchinensis, pictured above)
  • Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides), which forms extensive mats with tall waving seed-heads that deer will not touch.
  • Stout Bamboo Grass (Austrostipa ramossisima), which can reach 2m high or more.
  • The native Raspberries (Rubus spp.) The species that are rarely used in cultivation because they are too spiny or prickly could be of particular value: Molucca Bramble (R. moluccanus var. trilobus) and Bush Lawyer (R. nebulosus). 
  • Tough and sharp-leaved sedges such as the Gahnias (e.g. Red-fruited Sword-sedge, Gahnia sieberi). 
Weeping Grass is one species that can be grown around the base of trees
 or shrubs to help protect them. Its spiky seeds, present from May to
January or so, are not liked at all by deer. For the rest of the year,
 however, this species would provide less protection. 
Careful plant selection may reduce the risk of damage by deer, but even plants that are not palatable to deer are often ringbarked or otherwise destroyed by them. Some shrub and tree species that have a reputation as unattractive to deer include 

  • Rainforest Senna (Senna acclinis
  • Veiny Wilkiea (Wilkeia huegeliana
  • The native Solanum shrubs such as Kangaroo Apple (S. aviculare) or Devil's Needles (S. stelligerum)
  • Native Tamarind (Dipologlottis australis)
  • Koda (Ehretia acuminata)
  • Guioa (Guioa semiglauca)

Some other ideas are in the planning phase; I'll update this article when I know more. Thinking ahead, it is worth writing to local and state governments to complain about the deer problem and request that a proper eradication program be funded. 

How are you tackling deer on your property? Do you have any suggestions to add? 

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Try growing: local natives in hanging baskets

I've never grown native plants (or any plants, for that matter!) in hanging baskets. But it can certainly be done, and Peter Sorensen from coastal Towradgi has provided some amazing photos and tips on growing local species such as Yellow Buttons (Chrysocephalum apiculatum) and Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata) in this way. He's also got other Australian species such as Thyme Honey-myrtle (Melaleuca myrtifolia) and Cootamundra Wattle (Acacia baileyana) doing well.  
A collection of Australian natives grown in large hanging
baskets. Image by Elizabeth Meyer. 
Here is some advice from Peter on how he cares for these plants and keeps them looking their best, despite the challenges of a coastal situation with lots of wild weather and salt spray.

The bigger the basket the better (though keep them within your handling ability - these things can be heavy). The ones shown are 40cm or 50cm diameter. They have an outer liner of paperbark, coconut fibre or peat, largely for aesthetic purposes, and then an inner lining of plastic sheeting to prevent evaporation in the very exposed conditions. Cut a drainage hole in the plastic.

Freely draining soil is important. Try regular potting mix, with about 15% coarse sand or fine gravel (1mm-3mm) added. Start by putting 2 cups of 3mm gravel in the basket before adding the potting mix, to aid drainage. 
Yellow Buttons (Chrysocephalum apiculatum) looking fabulous mixed
with a Fan-flower (Scaevola) species. Image by Elizabeth Meyer.
A reliable care regime is important. Peter's plants are on irrigation and given water for a couple of minutes each morning and evening. The black plastic irrigation pipe is visible in some of the images. If you are not going to use irrigation, give each pot a good watering twice a week and leave the sand/gravel out of the potting mix. Dead-heading spent flowers keeps plants looking fresh though it is not strictly necessary. 
Hop Goodenia flowering its heart out, and doing so well you
 can't even see its basket. Image by Elizabeth Meyer.
I'm not sure whether this is Fairy Fan Flower (Scaevola
), a cultivar thereof or another Fan Flower species.
Whatever it is, it's spectacular! Image by Elizabeth Meyer.
Many thanks Peter for the tips and the photographs!