Thursday, October 31, 2013

Adenium obesum : Desert Rose

Desert Rose (Adenium obesum, Apocynacea)

This is the start of what is going to be a wonderful journey for me, and I hope for you too.  The truly amazing, and incredibly diverse plant world often leaves me awestruck at the sheer beauty and the fantastic adaptiveness of plants that helps them to survive in every climate and  place on this planet - from harsh mountainous regions, to coastal sand dunes, tropical rainforests and all points of the compass in between.

My husband was given this plant as a present (and I have been looking after it for a few years now!).  While not paying it much attention for most of the year, you certainly can't ignore it in early summer when it puts on this fantastic floral display with clusters of pink/red tubular flowers with a white throat.  When it is not flowering, it is still such a quirky, interesting plant and worth having if you live in a warm, frost-free area.

WHAT:  Adenium obesum - its botanic name actually tells us a lot about it, while its common name 'Desert Rose' is quite misleading because while it does originate from desert areas, they are not the dry and arid kind - and is certainly not related to the rose.  When my son was asking me what it was called the other day, even he said "So you would think that it doesn't need much water, but I first saw them growing really well in Bali - the tropics"?  Adeniums are hardy succulents which are more related to Alamandas, Oleanders and Frangipanis than the rose.  They have that typical, white sap common to all the plants in this family of Apocynacea.

WHERE: Named after the former British Colony of Aden (now South Yemen) -  south of the Sahara in tropical and sub-tropical Africa and Arabia are it's natural territory - hence Adeniums also finding a very happy home in sub-tropical Australia, where I live, and places like Bali.  The obesum bit refers to its fat, swollen base - which make them a very attractive, sculptured pot specimen.  The fat belly, in common with a lot of succulents, is for storing water through naturally dry periods - that's why it doesn't need too much watering in the winter - the driest months where it comes from.

HOW:  Their origins also tell you a lot about how to look after them.  They require frost free, little watering in the winter, protection from harsh weather and regular watering in the summer - typical tropical weather - and they like to be warm.  They make a fine specimen garden plant - just make sure you give them a free-draining soil.

POTS:  If you are going to plant them in a pot, make sure that you don't bury any part of its fat belly - it will probably rot if you do and you will miss seeing it's belly getting fatter as it grows! While they can get to 2m in the garden, they will stay smaller in pots and have a very interesting bonsai look about them.

PROPAGATING:  Now this is where it gets really interesting.  Plants grown from cuttings tend to be a bit straggly looking and Adeniums are generally grown from seed.  I was thrilled to see that my plant (well, my husbands') had set two long seed pods last year and I was filled with anticipation as to what was going to happen next.  After what seemed an eternity, they finally split open and revealed the most fairy-like seeds, with a silken tutu at each end.
They were almost impossible to photograph as the slightest puff would set them floating in the air.  They were just so enchanting, and incredible beautiful.  I had a happy few moments flitting around trying to round them up!
Adenium obesum seed

This story is to be continued as I have planted them, and they have sprouted.  Like all children, they will be versions of the parents but not identical - I may get a white one or an all red one - and, I might finally get to have a plant of my own!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Citrus: When and how to Feed

Potted oranges and lemons

I once read a survey in an Australian landscaping magazine that listed the top five things you could expect to find in the average Aussie backyard - they were: a barbecue; a Hill's Hoist (washing line); a dunny (outside toilet); a dog and a lemon tree.

It tells you a lot about Australians and their way of life - and that gardening is not top of their list!  However, I'm fortunate that my life as a horticulturist in Australia has been full of gardens and wonderful gardeners, and their passion for citrus trees is evident (not just the lone self seeded bush lemon tree!).  Citrus are always top of the clients' 'must have' list and questions about citrus always outnumber any other gardening questions.

In previous posts about citrus I have discussed pruning and planting, caterpillars on citrus and how to deal with common pests (scale, sooty mould and aphids).

Lastly, I'm going to tell you how to recognize nutritional deficiencies in your citrus trees and what their feeding requirements are.  When it comes to giving citrus tender loving care there are a few basic principles - one of the most important is adequate nutrition - CITRUS ARE HEAVY FEEDERS.

WHEN:  Citrus have very shallow surface-feeding roots and require fertilizing three times a year in July, November and March.  This is particularly important in areas of heavy rainfall where the soil rapidly becomes depleted of nutrients.  That's why it is also important to mulch them out to the drip-line to minimize soil run off and help maintain the nutrients in the soil.

DON'T feed the soil while they are in flower otherwise you will have a lot of leaves and no fruit.

DON'T OVERFEED - especially with nitrogen or you will end up with a lot of overlarge and thick-skinned fruit.

WHAT:  Citrus are heavy fruiters and take up a lot of the essential macro and micro nutrients out of the soil - they require the lot LITTLE and OFTEN.  Potassium (potash) is essential for flowering and fruiting and a natural constituent of seaweed - that's why regular feeding with a compost tea, that contains seaweed, or a seaweed concentrate is a good option for citrus.  I would recommend the following mixed with 4.5L water for the three times a year feeding regime.  Water in this mix around the drip-line of the tree - that is where the feeder roots are.

  • 3 tbs seaweed concentrate
  • 1 tsp trace elements
  • 2 tsp iron chelates
HOW:  Signs and symptoms of common nutrient deficiency:
Iron - a common deficiency in citrus with dieback of the new growth and intra-veinal mottling of the leaves.
Iron deficiency of citrus leaves

Nitrogen - Overall pale yellow leaves and lack of vigour.  This is not to be mistaken for 'winter yellowing' where some of the leaves will turn yellow in the winter because the nitrogen in the soil is unavailable to the plant in cold and dry soils.  The leaves will turn green again with the spring rains.

Nitrogen deficiency of citrus
Zinc - Yellow tipping of leaves.
Copper - Dieback and dry patches inside fruit.
Manganese - Intra-veinal mottling and lumpiness of leaves
Magnesium - Very common and similar in look to iron deficiency ending up with a triangular patch of green at the base of the leaves leaving the rest yellow.

A NOTE ABOUT CITRUS IN POTS:  Citrus have always made fantastic pot plants and have been grown this way for hundreds of years with large green house conservatories or 'orangeries' a part of a lot of the stately homes of Europe, where the potted citrus would be wheeled inside to overwinter.

The roots of citrus in pots cannot go foraging for water and nutrients and require particular attention to keep them looking as healthy as the orange tree in the above photo.  Enough water, but not too much and the right kind of food, but not too much.  I would still recommend the above recipe three times a year with extra monthly waterings of a weak compost tea or worm juice drink.

  • Choose an open and sunny spot to plant them - out of the wind.
  • Mulch out to the drip-line.
  • Feed regularly - not forgetting the essential trace elements.
  • Prune to shape regularly.
  • Ensure they are getting adequate water - particularly when the fruit is setting - dry plants mean dry fruit.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Feta Cheese: Making Your Own!

Homemade feta marinated in olive oil

With a good source of fresh milk I have recently been venturing into the wonderful world of home cheese making - something I have always wanted to do but thought it would really be too complicated to try at home - not so.  This is apart from the fact that I adore cheese and one of the joys of traveling is getting to try new varieties.

People talk about the romance of the vine and wine making, but I think there's a lot in the romance of the 'rind' - cheese-making - the sources of milk from a wide variety of landscapes, the family traditions, recipes and love that goes into the making of cheese.  Where would a good Greek salad be without a big slab of feta cheese on top of a glistening bowl of tomatoes, cucumbers and olives, drizzled with local olive oil and sprinkled with herbs?

This all started with making my own yoghurt, and from that labneh and ricotta. So when I saw this recipe for home-made feta by Matthew Evans, that included raw yoghurt, my eyes lit up. It does take a while, but you don't have to watch it all the time - it's really about the alchemy of beneficial bacteria (as in yoghurt making) which do take a bit of time to work but, believe me, the end result is worth it.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED: A thermometer - just a simple one with a prong that clips onto the edge of the saucepan.  Sterile implements and bowls - this is where a dishwasher comes into its own - everything gets washed thoroughly and then heated while they are drying. Clean piece of muslin (cheesecloth) or use a brand-new Chux.

3 litres unhomogenised milk
1 1/2 tbsp live natural yoghurt
1/8  tsp rennet OR 3 junket tablets whisked into 150ml boiled then cooled water 
2 tbsp salt

NOTE:  Matthew Evans states that he had varying success using junket tablets, but I found they worked just fine - as you can see!.  The only way I could lay my hands on rennet was by ordering it on line and I just couldn't wait however, junket  - being an old fashioned milk coagulating desserty thing, is readily available in my country town mini-supermarket.  I remember in my Domestic Science classes at school having to make junket as part of an 'invalid meal' - like yoghurt, it's easy to digest.

1.  Heat the milk in a large saucepan over a low flame until it reaches 32C.  You need to keep it as close to this temperature for about an hour so put straight away into an Esky or insulated bag.  Put a wad of newspaper on the bottom because it the pan will be hot, then zip it up.

2.  After one hour, add the yoghurt and whisk it through the milk.  Put the lid on your pot again and zip it up for another hour.

3. Whisk the rennet or junket mixture to the milk and then stop the milk from moving with a large spoon (you need the milk mix to be completely still while the rennet is working).  Cover again and leave for 8-12 hours, or overnight.  Do not disturb during this time.

4.  Once the curds are set, use a long knife to cut the curds into squares and leave to sit for ten minutes.

5.  Line a colander with a layer of muslin leaving enough to cover the top of the cheese, drain the curds through it and wrap the cheesecloth over the top.

6.  Put a plate on top that will cover most of the cheese and top with about 1kg of weight - I used a couple of cans of tomatoes. Stand back in the saucepan on top of an inverted little dish so that your cheese is sitting up above the strained whey. Refrigerate and leave for 24 hours.
7.  To make the brine solution, mix together the salt with 1 litre of water and stir to dissolve.  Cut the cheese into squares, place in sterilized jars, top up with the brine and leave for a day or two before using.  Will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

NOTE:  Brining the cheese 'hardens' it up and gives it that distinctive feta characteristics.  If you want a softer, milder cheese, strain from the brine after a couple of hours and keep by covering in olive oil.  You can also add some lemon peel/garlic/herbs/chillies etc. - I just love marinated feta for breakfast and lunch and then add to salads for dinner.  Ideally, I would have marinated this in a lighter olive oil, but the extra virgin was all I had - it just gives a stronger taste.

This cheese left unbrined is very similar to Greek manouri cheese. I had a delcious salad of this on the island of Skopelos (where they made the film Mumma Mia). The cheese was grilled until lightly golden and then placed on a bed of wild rocket and cherry tomatoes with a dressing of reduced balsamic.  At home in Mullumbimby, all I had to do was put on 'Dancing Queen', eat some of this yummy cheese and I was right back there.

NOTE: This is a very economical cheese to make at home.  3 litres of milk made 800g of feta.
Anybody reconize this church?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Simple Pleasures: Ruby Wax and Seneca

Being yourself - the art of being happy in your own skin.  A pelican amongst the gulls and terns at Belongil Estuary

I recently went to a show in Byron with Ruby Wax - the New York comedian who lives in London.  She was talking about her new book 'Sane New World' - an account of her experiences of being born into a dysfunctional family, being diagnosed with depression after the birth of her third child, having lived with it for most of her life, and how she learned to deal with it.  She dealt with it by allowing herself to be diagnosed and then trying to understand it - she has just completed a course at Oxford University where she studied neural plasticity - how the brain works and suggests we can rewire it to help us function in a better way - it's apparently not all in our DNA .

“A man’s as miserable as he thinks he is.” Seneca

She prefaced her talk, in the usual way, by having a dig at the Byron Bay audience - (apparently we are all perceived to be hippy-trippy, crystal gazing, new agers - amongst other things).  She then proceeded to talk about how she turned her life around by learning about mindfulness - being in the moment and about how we should: realize that the acquisition of wealth and 'stuff' won't give us peace and contentment,  stop and actually listen to our children,  not try to do twenty things at once and be aware of the here and now etc. etc.  It seemed to me that most of the audience were thinking the same as me "No wonder you're depressed if you've only just worked that out"   Why did she think we have chosen to be HERE rather than THERE?

“For many men, the acquisition of wealth does not end their troubles, it only changes them.”*

Welcome Swallows on the beach at New Brighton trying to teach us about fun, family and being playful

We all have difficult times in our life and there is not always a hand reaching out to stop us stumbling or pick us up when we fall,  so we really have to learn ways of helping ourselves - for me that's engaging with nature, being active (having a swim!) and finding the pleasure in small things, because sometimes I could easily just pull the covers over and try to blot out the difficult bits.  It's at times like that I go back to Seneca - the Roman philosopher who lived over 2,000 years ago during the reign of Nero, who ended up forcing Seneca to take his own life when he fell out of favour (and we think our leaders can be self-serving, greedy nincompoops!).  I really got to know about Seneca from the marvelous series 'The Consolations of Philosophy', by modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton.  Seneca's main message is that we are in charge of our own happiness and if the way we are running our life is making us unhappy - then change it.  Be brave - it will make you more resilient.

“There is no person so severely punished, as those who subject themselves to the whip of their own remorse.” Seneca

JUST A LITTLE STORY:  When I was growing up my mother was constantly on the latest fad diet - grapefruit, Pritikin, Weight Watchers, liquid dinners in a can, pills etc. etc.  The garage was also full of discarded 'diet aids' - a belted fat wobbler that you strapped around you, turned on and then fell in a heap of laughter (that burnt up a few calories - the fat wobbler did nothing!), special mats and rolling 'things' for doing stomach crunches, a medicine ball that nearly knocked her teeth out and the piece de la resistance 'the scuba suit' - as my father dubbed it.  This was flesh-coloured, rubber corset with little holes all over it that my brother and I had to help her get zipped into - don't ask!.  This was supposed to make her sweat, while running around the house with the vacuum cleaner, and bingo the pounds would drop off.  Of course, she didn't loose an ounce.  The unzipping of this corset of torture was at least fun to watch - she looked like she was in the final stages of some fatal disease; bright pink, sweaty with little pimples all over her where her flesh had been forced through the corset holes!
Mum thought there there was a magic answer to all of this.  What she didn't want to do was CHANGE - eat less and exercise.

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live" Seneca

Mindfulness - a big lesson from a little tern

“He that does good to another does good also to himself.”Seneca

I hope you have somewhere to go when your mind is full - somewhere to empty it.  I go to the beach!
Rainbow bee eater

This flock of the most incredibly beautiful rainbow bee eaters had made their very tenuous homes at the high water mark at South Golden Beach, which will probably be eroded into the sea at the next storm or king tide (about ten metres of beach have been lost this year).  This nesting site was also only about 20 m away from the dog walking strip - I hope their owners are mindful.  It was going for this walk on the beach yesterday that made me want to share these beautiful creatures with you - simple pleasures - and Mr Seneca.

Rainbow Bee Eater at home, South Golden Beach, NSW

“Life’s like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”Seneca

*Lucius Seneca, philosopher, statesman, educator and dramatist 4BC-65AD

PS My mother was never fat, she just thought she was.  My parents aged in the 80's.  Maybe swimming is in the DNA?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Broad Bean Salad

The mainstay of my garden during the late winter and early spring has been broad beans - I just love them.  I love the way they look in my garden and I love the way they taste.

The plants are about 2 metres high, full of delicately blushed flowers and abuzz with pollinators.  It's a strange thing, but they were flowering for a full month before the pollinators came and the pods started setting.  Maybe the pollen/ovum have to reach a certain maturity before the bees start humming and are attracted to them - a bit like puberty?

Broad beans (or fava beans) are one of the oldest cultivated plants dating back 5,000 BC in Greece and the Mediterranean and you find them popping up there as dips, salads and cooked with other vegetables - like artichokes which are flourishing in the garden at the same time as broad beans.  This is an extremely adaptable salad, but this is how  have been making it for the past few weeks - and it's delicious!

1 bunch watercress, washed (you can use rocket or small salad leaves instead)
1 cup shelled and steamed fresh broad beans.
1 avocado, cubed
1/2 cup shaved fennel (optional - put some chopped dill in as a substitute if you don't have fennel)
1/4 cup toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 tbs diced preserved lemon
2 tbs shaved pecorino (or parmesan) - put this on after the dressing
A light dressing made from e.v. olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice with salt and black peppper.

NOTE:  When the broad beans are young you can use them freshly steamed without peeling them again.  However, once they look grey and leathery when cooked you have to peel them again to reveal a luscious green bean underneath.  This salad contains a mixture of both peeled and unpeeled.