Thoughts on things. And camellias.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but there’s been quite the hiatus here on The Tree Diaries.

I’ve noticed. I’ve had a crisis of confidence of sorts... a moment of questioning why on earth I feel authorised to write about gardening - something that I am learning from scratch and a hobby which stems from passion rather than any sort of expertise - and putting those words out into the world to be judged.

It’s weird, isn’t it, this internet age we live in? Where anyone with a laptop and camera can join the myriad of voices and pitch her views? For sure, I am overthinking this (it’s what I do!). And to be fair, I have a tendency towards an all-or-nothing mentality: not sure how to navigate the tricky world of social media and the blogosphere? Stop sharing anything, anywhere, with anyone!! Ever! Such a sensible, measured reaction… ;)

So in all my adult wisdom, I’ve decided not to be so extreme this time round and instead land upon a middle ground. I love gardens and gardening, and I am a writer to my core, so the blog stays. I’m not fabulous about letting people into all aspects of my life, so social media will take a back seat for a while. 

On that note, if you have been relying on instagram updates about new posts on The Tree Diaries, you might miss a bit (or a lot) from now on. I’m just working on the Winter Edition of the newsletter now, which hopefully will go out in a few weeks, so if you want to stay up-to-date (and get seasonal planting tips and the like), sign up here.

In the meantime, scroll down for a brand new interview in the Gardening From Scratch series, this time with Paul West of River Cottage Australia fame. And, in the spirit of jumping back in, later this week I'll have another post up about my absolute favourite garden in Australia.

And because no blog post is complete without photos of flowers, this one is peppered with beautiful camellias from a recent visit to Cockington Green (an over-priced but fabulously twee miniature village in Canberra). The camellias there are stunning and were in full bloom when we visited. The 15 ft camellia hedges flanking the back path are just incredible... and rub salt into the wounds of a recently failed attempt to do the same at our house, sadly. Anyway, there's nothing that cheers up the cold winter days like beautifully blooming camellias.

Varieties pictured (top to bottom) are: 1 Camellia sasanqua ‘Showa Supreme’; 2 Camellia sasanqua ‘Lucinda’; 3 Camellia sasanqua ‘Showa Supreme’; 4 Camellia sasanqua ‘Exquisite’. 

Bamboo do you do

We use bamboo canes in our garden for lots of different things - staking up tomatoes and beans, supporting protective bags around vulnerable saplings... one memorable time, trying to defend myself against a particularly jerky wallaby (not my finest moment). But, until last spring, it never occurred to us that we could use bamboo that we'd grown ourselves.

Hubby and I were at Glenmore House last year and one of the things we loved about Mickey's kitchen garden is her exceptional use of structures. Specifically, seasonal garden structures. Long lengths of bamboo tied neatly into teepees or crafted into a frame. Wooden pegs holding nets in place, and old rusted tin cans keeping them from lifting in the wind. By summer's end, beans have wound their tendrils 12 ft up around the supports and tower above everything else. Tomatoes have consumed a cross-hatched frame. Berries are running wild, but not out of control, along a temporary fence. It makes a functional space look beautiful. 

Our kitchen garden is not quite so picturesque as the one at Glenmore House, but you get the idea.

Mickey mentioned that the bamboo canes in her garden are ones she's grown herself - primarily because she loves the long lengths that she can harvest (typically, commercial ones are only available up to 1.8m or 6ft long, presumably so that people can fit them in their cars). Until that moment, it had never occurred to either of us that we could grow and harvest our own bamboo for that purpose!

In fact, we already had bamboo growing in the garden. Several years ago we replaced an ugly corrugated metal screen outside our shower window (it's a floor-to-ceiling window) with slatted merbau. It's waaaayyyy prettier, but not quite so private. This is hardly a problem given our location in the middle of nowhere, but when we have visitors it can feel a smidge disconcerting to shower essentially in the open. We planted a maple in the garden bed just outside the window, which is great in the summer, but a bare trunk is hardly going to cover the important bits come winter... So planted bamboo behind the maple. 

Bamboo has a justifiably bad reputation for being an invasive species - it can be incredibly vigorous and the running varieties can easily get away from you and take over. For that reason, we picked a clumping variety, which are far less likely to take off, and we made sure that the garden bed was completely contained by edging to about 3 inches under the soil. So far so good - it has certainly thickened up nicely, and is doing it's job to screen the bathroom window, but it hasn't broken its garden bed confines.

Because it's so vigorous, we've had to cut it back several times in the past few years. And being the somewhat tardy gardener that I am, often this job hasn't happened until the canes are twice the size of the wooden screen. Which, of course, means we have now the perfect super long canes for our towering garden structures! Yay for the to-do list fail! 

I can't imagine that The Coopermarket is suddenly going to be as lovely as the kitchen garden at Glenmore House, but it'll be so nice to build our supporting structures from our own bamboo next spring. 

A tomato epiphany

We are drowning under piles of tomatoes right now. There are baskets and tupperware containers and bowls, and a wheelbarrow for goodness sakes - all completely full of tomatoes. They are haunting my dreams. And we have yet to harvest four of the beds. Oh my.

This happened last year too... Spring finally drags itself out of bed after a long cold winter and I get waaayyyyy overeager in my seed-starting, desperate to make the most of the summer ahead. Plans of growing enough tomatoes to bottle a year's supply of passata seem entirely reasonable in early spring.

Come December and January, I am struggling to find the time and enthusiasm to keep tying up the plants and keep things neat, tidy and somewhat manageable in The Coopermarket. But I figure all will be okay! Wild gardens are healthy gardens right?!?!? 

Cut to February or March (or, as may be the case, April) and the final weeks of harvest - we are overwhelmed with the task of picking and processing and seriously question why we thought it was a good idea to put in 40 tomato plants in the first place. There are those horrible tiny fly/bug thingies hovering around some of the baskets of tomatoes in the kitchen... you just know that means something is rotting and about to liquify, taking a few others along with it. You know that you should be spending every evening processing tomatoes but the motivation up and left when the cold weather finally rolled in. The couch beckons but the tomatoes beckon (taunt) louder.

So, to my ephipany this evening: grow fewer tomatoes!

After much beating-myself-up-for-being-a-terrible-housewife in the past week, I suddenly remembered that our goal was never, and most likely never will be, self-sufficiency. We want to continue to eat seasonally, locally and grow what we can. But if the tomatoes are the break of me every year, there seems to be an easy fix... grow fewer tomatoes!

I will need to be reminded of this plan come September. Inevitably the seed catalogues will call my name and I will get overeager again... I expect that many of my friends will be receiving gifts of tomato seedlings when it comes time to plant. But I already feel a huge weight off my shoulders knowing that, you know what? I can just GROW FEWER TOMATOES!

{The top photo is all of the varieties that we grew this year - all Diggers seeds, a mix of heirloom, organic and hybrid seed types, and all extremely tasty!}

Garden Ramble // Roogulli

My wonderful friend and fellow gardening-from-scratch-in-horribly-rocky-ground warrior, Linda, recently gave me a heads up about an open garden over on her side of our little mountainous region. She said that it sounded like a garden much like the incredibly productive one that she is creating, so of course I was on board to go for a stickybeak.

The owners of Roogulli describe their property as a "small farm and big experiment". They are landscape designers by trade and are using their property to test some of their ideas about sustainably sound landscape design practices. When they bought the property back in 2004, it was pretty much heavily grazed paddocks with a couple of trees dotted around. So truly, they started with a blank slate (albeit one with soil, which neither Linda nor I are able to claim) and have built a productive and beautiful garden in roughly a decade. Even though the garden at Roogulli is vastly different from the one that we are building here, I can't tell you how reassuring it is to know that they have achieved all of this in just 10 years or so. It gives us hope that we are not fighting a losing battle!

The kitchen garden is fully netted, which is a brilliant idea but difficult to execute... Certainly a goal for The Coopermarket, but a distant one. Within its confines, there is a small polytunnel greenhouse with wicking beds, as well as open air beds of fruit and veg. The fence visible from the driveway has been cleverly used to espalier apple trees - the perfect use of space and a lovely way to make the whole space look less utilitarian and "caged". 

Beyond the confines of the kitchen garden, the owners have created what they call a "food forest". The trees within the forest are all fruiting (not an ornamental to be found!), and mostly underplanted with edibles or green mulches. The owners have planted a native hedge around the outside, designed to channel cold air away from the fruit trees, which has really made us think about doing a similar thing here... the cold winds in winter and the hot drying winds in summer are a huge issue on our mountainside, and unless we design well to manage them we will always be fighting a losing battle. Excellent take-home from this open garden!

Also within the food forest, a second smaller polytunnel contains old bathtubs being used as wicking beds for herbs and citrus. We have always had so much trouble growing both herbs (I know - seems like it should be the easiest thing to grow right?!?! I mean, I use to grow them on a tiny balcony in the inner city for goodness sakes!) and citrus. We are planning to put in a greenhouse this winter and whilst I do hope to use it to get a small earlier crop of tomatoes, I think it's primary function will be herb and citrus growing... must investigate further because greenhouses are fraught with rapid-solarised-plant-death problems if not managed well in the Aussie summers.

For me, one of the most interesting things about Roogulli was actually something extremely insignificant in the scheme of this beautiful garden - the presence of fumaria! A lot of it, clearly allowed to run its rampant ways and not torn out to look presentable for an open garden!! Fumaria is basically the reason that I started this blog, so obviously I had to ask the owner about it. Although he seemed utterly perplexed that my only question about the whole garden related to a weed-or-not-a-weed, he answered very thoughtfully: yes, he does let it do its own thing, so long as it doesn't take over productive plants; and yes, he is pleased to have it (pollinator attracting, as evidenced from the happy bee below, and an effective nitrogen fixer for the soil apparently). He noted that it dies back completely in the winter and, whilst it does run rampant, so far it hasn't bothered him enough to take measures to control it beyond pulling it back every once in a while. I feel so much better about my decision not to try to eradicate it after seeing it at Roogulli.

I was intrigued by the landscaping around the house too - the only "unproductive" parts of the garden (in that they aren't edibles). Plantings in these gardens are based around native grassland plants, although it is worth noting that the owners are slowly replacing the grasses with small shrubs and groundcovers because the maintenance of the grasses is too intensive. I've never been a huge fan of grasses in gardens - they do provide really interesting shapes and structural focal points, but they can so quickly look unruly. I find it interesting that the owners are slowly phasing them out here... 

I'm always curious about groudcover choices (due to an aversion to mulches and a desire to rid our garden of all dry mulches within the next few years), so I was taking note of the various ones in use here - particularly the beautiful gravilleas which were covered in bees. 

Roogulli was such an interesting garden to visit - "small farm and big experiment" really seems an apt description. Although it's quite different to our ornamental/cottage-y garden (with edibles as a secondary component), this garden is how I imagine Linda's garden to be one day - full and beautiful and productive, with not an inch of space wasted. It'll be fun to watch it slowly come to fruition over the next decade or two!

A plum idea

This drizzly autumn long weekend, whilst my family is chowing down on hot cross buns, I will be thickly spreading summer on toast in the form of 'Luisa' plum jam. Mmmmmmmmm! Which reminded me that this post has been sitting in my drafts folder since, oooof, who knows when. I am posting it much too late to be of any use to anybody in the southern hemisphere this year, but perhaps it will be useful to those of you heading into spring....

When life gives you plums, so very many plums... You go through all of your cookbooks and dig out every single recipe to use them all up!

This year we've had, at a guess, a total of around 40kgs of plums from the 3 trees in our orchard (a fourth tree didn't fruit at all). I know many of you have had that amount from single trees, so we are certainly not the only ones trying to make the most of all of this fruit, all at once. And in years to come, as our trees mature and reach their full fruiting potential... oooof, I know that I am going to want to have a very handy resource of recipes to make the most of them.

So in order to keep my plum recipes in one place, I thought I would start a little list here on The Tree Diaries. I would love to hear your own favourite plum recipes or preserving methods too.

Plum jam - I have shared my standard jam recipe elsewhere on the blog, so I won't bother repeating it but it's an easy way to use fruit and be able to enjoy their flavour all year round. There are so many delicious baked goods that can be made with jam, so you don't have to spend all of winter missing summer fruits. Best of all, it only requires the fruit of your choice and sugar, which I always have on hand (plums are a medium-high pectin fruit, so you probably won't need to add any pectin to achieve setting). I made four jars of plum jam from the very last of our plums, the 'Luisa' variety. 

Plum cordial - I used the same recipe as for nectarine cordial that I shared a few weeks ago, but this time I had tartaric acid on hand so I added a small amount (1 tsp, for a batch that used 350g plums). I used the other half of our Luisa plums for cordial as they have the nicest colour.

Plum tart - this, my friends, was ahhhhhhhmazing. After spending the better part of a day looking and salivating over a million and one versions of plum crumble cakes, I found this very simple tart in The Cook and Baker cookbook and knew it was the one. Better still, we have lots of apricot jam from earlier in summer. I can not possibly emphasise enough how delicious this is. Although, to be honest, there are about thirty recipes in The Cook and Baker book that I feel I absolutely need to have in my belly! This recipe can be found elsewhere on the internet in it's original form, in case you want to skip my ad-libbing.

Ingredients: 300g plain flour (GF works wonderfully) // 150g cold butter, diced  //  250g caster sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for sprinkling  //  pinch of salt  //  2 egg yolks at room temperature  //  1 tsp vanilla extract  //  750g ripe plums  //  4 tbsp apricot jam

Method: Preheat oven to 180°C. Lightly grease and fully line a 20x30cm slab tin. Whizz the flour and butter in a food processor until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and salt and whizz again. Add the egg yolks, vanilla and 2 tbsp of cold water. Whizz until the dough forms a ball. Press the dough evenly into the tin. Quarter the plums and place them on the dough in rows. Sprinkle the top of the tart with the extra caster sugar and then bake for 45-50 mins (until golden). Leave the tart in the tin and allow to cool on a wire rack. Gently heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan and then strain it through a sieve. Brush the plums liberally with the jam as a glaze. Serve warm or at room temperature - either way it is beyond delicious!

This one is definitely on the menu again for next summer's harvest! 

Choosing between two great options

I am by absolutely no means a gardening expert - my gosh, nothing could be further from the truth. But I do love gardening - the doing of it, the reading about it, the science of it, even the learning of random Latin that comes along with it. So when people ask me questions about gardening, despite my instinct to rapidly reply with an "I know nothing!", I am trying to give a slightly more thoughtful and useful response.

(Before I go on... these photos, the ones of the ahhhhmazing ornamental pears lining Lake Burley Griffin, are from my very first year in Canberra. In fact, my very first month in Canberra... which is why I never left ;)

The other day a lovely new friend, who had been told I write a gardening blog, asked for advice about trees. Specifically, whether it was worth planting fruiting trees instead of ornamental varieties, even if you don't really care about harvesting much (or any) of the fruit. To anybody who doesn't grow fruit, this might seem like a silly question - I mean, surely you'd want to harvest the fruit right? But, as documented elsewhere on this blog (and to every person within ear shot for the last few months), keeping the fruit on the tree long enough to harvest can be a right royal pain in the butt. So I completely understand why the actual eating of the fruit might not be the deciding factor. What my friend was asking was essentially: is there any real value in the ornamental tree varieties over the fruiting ones? 

After much thought, my answer is: yes, there is considerable value in planting the ornamental varieties instead of the fruiting ones. Unless, of course, you want to harvest the fruit (obviously!).

With an ornamental tree, a Manchurian pear for example (as in the photos above), you water it, prune it and otherwise basically care for it, stake it when it is young perhaps, but generally let it do its thing. It will have glorious blossom in springtime, provide lovely shade in summer, produce firecracker colours in autumn and be bare as bones come winter. Lovely. Easy. 

But it isn't quite so simple with the fruiting variety. Sure, it will have beautiful blossom in spring (assuming it is old enough - fruiting pears will take their sweet time to produce any blossom and, therefore, fruit). But as for the foliage come summer... Hmmm, not always so easy or straightforward. Please observe Exhibit A:

This here is the result of pear and cherry slug. Please turn your attention to Exhibit B:

The pear and cherry slug is the larvae of a glossy black sawfly. Unless you get rid of them they will quickly skeletonise the leaves of cherry and pear trees, but also plums, apricots, apples... and I think they even got stuck into our almond trees this year. Whilst they won't kill a mature tree, they can kill a younger tree (they took down our three cherry trees a few years ago), and at a minimum they will set the tree back and diminish fruiting. And, clearly, they remove all ornamental value from the tree.

But here's the thing: this just does not affect our ornamental trees (including our ornamental pears, cherry, crab apples, apricot... I'm sure there are more...). At all. Even the ornamental pears that are mere feet from these fruiting varieties remain unaffected.

And pear and cherry slug is by no means the only pest or disease that affects fruit trees: scale, fruit fly, leaf minor, leaf curl... Probably countless more... They all affect fruit trees, but don't seem to affect ornamental trees in the same way, or at all. Of course there are ways to battle these problems without using chemicals (and I will happily chat about how to do that in a future post), but it is a battle that doesn't need to be fought with the ornamentals. In the past five years, we have had dealt with countless episodes of pear and cherry slug, as well as peach leaf curl (which, despite its name, also affects our nectarines). Yet, just metres away, we have ornamental varieties that receive absolutely no love from us apart from water and a good annual pruning, and that have rewarded us with strong growth, lovely blossom, excellent shade and beautiful autumnal colour.

So, in short and after much consideration: nope, I don't think that there is value in planting fruiting tree varieties unless you want to harvest the fruit. And regardless, I truly think that it is worthwhile to plant ornamental varieties throughout the garden too. They are beautiful, shade giving, pollinator-loving trees, and will add so much value to your space. 

PS Elizabeth, I have no idea if you read this blog, but if you do, my apologies for answering via here instead of in person! Playgroup never seems to afford the opportunity to actually talk!

Garden ramble // Lanyon Homestead & Plant Fair

Goodness, my apologies for the long break between posts on The Tree Diaries!! Life lately hasn't allowed the lovely introspection and naval gazing that this blog affords me, and that's okay. I am reminded of the wisdom of a fellow blogger (and podcaster), Brooke McAlary of Slow Your Home: "If you look at balance as something you need to achieve every day - keeping the scales evenly weighted between your partner, your kids, your family, friends, yourself, your spirituality, health, keeping the home, your work - you simply won't be able to do it. Because each day brings different challenges, different tasks and different needs from your life. Instead, you need to learn to tilt. To willingly throw things out of balance. And, importantly, to be OK with that." 

Life really has been all about "tilting" lately... tilting away from this blog and other creative interests and into my family and homelife. And whilst that has been necessary, wonderful and worthwhile, I am so very glad that I am here again, in this happy space! I have lots of bits and pieces to share (including an incredible Slovenian Gardening From Scratch instalment), but first up is a garden we visited today in the far southern part of Canberra - Lanyon Homestead.

Every year we say that we are going to visit Lanyon during the annual plant fair, and every year we are away and miss it... But not this time! Despite being on our gazillionith week of high summer, we braved the heat and the long drive and saw what the fuss is about.

As a plant lover, the fair was wonderful. So many growers that we usually have to mail-order from, all in one place and ready to answer questions and sell their beautiful (and some rare) plants and bulbs. Miraculously though, I didn't buy a single one (yay for self control!)*. Instead we explored the kids' craft tent, caught up with my bee school teacher who was there with a great backyard beekeeping display, and pottered around the beautiful gardens.

Lanyon Homestead sits on a working farm, right at the feet of the beautiful Brindabella Ranges. The homestead itself is a restored 1850s home, and it is surrounded by various garden "rooms" (although not in a deeply formal, Sissinghurst sense), separated by photinia hedges.

The plant fair was centred around the Bunya Lawn, which is under two giant Bunya pines. My hubby could only remember one thing about Lanyon from his childhood school visit and it was these huge trees - I don't blame him, they were pretty impressive.

I was more than a little enamoured with the picking garden - several large, interconnected beds filled with flowers for the house... Dreamy! The towering canna lilies that filled the middle of the beds were unexpected and impressive but not really my thing - partly because I just don't value them as a picking flower, but mostly because of the sheer bulk of their planting (we tuck ours down the back of the garden, where they can proliferate unchecked and tower over a fence, but not overwhelm everything else). But the bountiful anemones (windflowers) and dahlias that surrounded the mass of cannas - yes please!

The picking garden sits above the kitchen garden and rose beds, both of which seem impressively productive. Beyond these beds are beautiful lawns dotted with old fruit and nut trees, including an orchard planted between the 1930s and 1970s. I find it so helpful to know when trees were planted, in order to have slightly more reasonable expectations of our own, very young garden... knowing that many of these trees were planted almost 100 years ago really keeps things in perspective!

* Self-control extended only so far as the plants... we did buy ourselves a metal pear sculpture from an artist couple based in Dalgety, something we've had our eye on for a while. It will sit proudly in the orchard, perched upon a chunk of rock in the ground that we never did manage to remove.

Anyhoo, the Plant Fair was a fun family day out - the kids' craft tent and enormous serves of Devonshire tea kept the littles happy, and hubby and I got a giant pear - smiles all round! Well worth the long drive.

A cordial introduction

We had quite the unexpected (but very welcome!) glut of nectarines this year. As our orchard is so young I didn't hold much hope for more than a handful of fruit, but boy did those little trees outdo themselves!

We have four nectarine trees in the orchard - one 'Early Rivers', two 'Goldmine' and one that I obviously didn't write down the varietal name of way back when we planted them five years ago. We managed to harvest the fruit from all but one tree before the pesky lorikeets came and stripped it bare (under full tree netting and all!). 

Confronted with bucket loads of fruit, I spent an evening pouring over Sally Wise's wonderful book 'A Year on the Farm'. Sally is the guru of how best to preserve high summer fruit to enjoy all through the depths of winter.

The recipes that kept jumping out at me were Sally's cordials and fizzy drinks. There wasn't a specific recipe for nectarines, but the general process for cordial seemed to be fairly consistent: fruit, sugar, water, tartaric acid and citric acid. Having neither tartaric or citric acid in my pantry, I did a bit of internet searching and came up with my own version... and now we have a few beautiful big bottles of nectarine cordial in the cupboard, to drink with sparkling water on a hot afternoon, mix with champagne as a bellini alternative, or perhaps mix with a sneaky tipple of vodka and soda water.

The rest of the excess fruit I chopped up to freeze. On Sally's recommendation, the fruit was first mixed with a bit of ascorbic acid, which is pure vitamin c powder (available from chemists), used to help preserve fruit when freezing. The frozen fruit will be perfect to add to muffins and other baked treats all through winter.

So, should you wish to make your own...

Nectarine cordial

Ingredients: 1kg nectarines // 250g caster sugar  // juice of 1 lemon  //  750ml water

Method: Halve and destone the nectarines and then blitz them in a blender or food processor. Put the resulting nectarine slush into a big pot and add the sugar, lemon juice and water. Bring to a rolling boil and then boil the mixture for a full 2 minutes. Strain the liquid through a fine metal sieve and then pour into sterilised bottles. Process the bottles using your preferred method - I use a basic waterbath method (the largest pot we own, filled with water - place the bottles into the pot - bring water to the boil and then keep boiling for 10 minutes for this cordial). Please keep in mind the risk of botulism - although the sugar helps lower the risk, you should always be really careful when preserving foods. Pour over ice, add something sparkling, enjoy!

Thank you for hand modelling husband!

Oh bee-hive

Let me preface this post with a caveat - I am a total novice beekeeper and I have much to learn, and much more experience to gain before I can feel confident in sharing opinions about the specifics of beekeeping. However, when I was trying to figure out how to get into beekeeping this is the sort of information I craved, and it wasn't always easy to come by. So I am offering this up as thoughts only. Our bee school teacher told us that for every two beekeepers you get three opinions, so you can be sure that not everybody will agree with what I type. Please feel free to comment if you heartily disagree with me on any points - I am a willing recipient of your experience!

Okay, caveat done.

There are so many different types of hives available, so it is hard to know which one to get when you are starting out. And to be honest, depending on how you are getting your bees, your type of hive may already be decided for you - if you are transferring a swarm or buying a bee package, then you can use whatever you like. If you are buying a nucleus hive then your choice of hive will be dictated by the types of frame you are transferring... I will do another post about buying bees soon, but it's worth keeping this in mind.

I had read several books and countless blog and magazine articles about hive choices before I was ready to get my bees, so I already had opinions about the "right" and "wrong" types to get. As with many things, there are very loud voices out there, and it's hard not to get caught up in the opinion sharing. But what it seems to all come down to is that as a beekeeper you have a foremost responsibility to care for your hives and manage them properly. The type of hive is going to dictate a little bit how you do that, but not change the fact that you must do that.

So, the choices.

Langstroth hive: The one that you see most often in the Canberra-region seems to be a wooden box Langstroth hive. The Langstroth is made up of (bottom to top): the risers, which create an opening for the bees to enter; a full-depth box of frame called a brood box; and then additional boxes on top called supers, where the honey is stored (although brood will be laid in the supers unless a queen excluder is place between it and the brood box - this can be another point of controversy, so I'll touch on it in a later post).  There are frames in each box and each frame (usually) has a thin sheet of foundation wax attached to it. Again, as with most things, the use of foundation wax can be controversial, with some people believing in foundation-less hives. Later post!

Personally, the Langstroth hive is the type of hive I would buy if I was starting from scratch and getting a bee package or catching a swarm. They are reasonsbly priced, fairly universal so it's easy to get parts, and they have a simple attractive design. From my very limited experience, my only real concern is their longevity - in Australia they are usually constructed from radiata pine, which is very quick to weather. Even if it is painted for protection, they seem to have a lifespan of about, at most, 5 years before the wood splits, rots and warps and starts to fall apart (which is exactly what has happened to the hives we were given as a housewarming present). I'm sure that this could be extended if they were repainted and repaired, but that would require moving the colony into a new hive in order to do the repair work. The wood is also susceptible to fungal rot, so may need to be pre-treated with appropriate chemicals.

Plastic hives: I didn't go with wooden box Langstroth hives and what that really comes down to is who I learnt from and how I obtained my bees. The two hives that we have are based on the same basic Langstroth design (i.e. brood box on the bottom, supers on the top), but are made from plastic. Plastic hives were not even on my radar before I started beekeeping, and purists would object loudly to their use. I totally get it - it's PLASTIC! But it's a funny thing - when you start to actually work with bees and learn how to inspect them and manage them, I think the biggest impact on your decision making about the equipment you use will be the people who teach you, and the equipment they use. My teacher had around 40 plastic hives and one wooden one, and he was absolutely adamant that in our conditions the plastic one is the better choice.

Again, I know that this opinion is controversial, but I can see the benefits of plastic hives (obviously, as I have wound up with two of them!). They don't weather and degrade. They are double-walled, so they regulate temperature much better (relevant in our climate, where it easily varies between -10°C in the winter and 40°C in the summer). They are compatible with wooden box parts (same measurements), so old Langstroth equipment can still be used. They don't require repainting or need any other chemicals to be applied to help maintain their condition... although plastic itself is a chemical, so I really feel that is a moot point.

As I said above, if I was choosing hives without having learned to beekeep on the plastic ones, I would be most inclined to the wooden ones. For goodness sakes, I am trying to reduce my use of plastics, not add to it! But I am very happy with the hives we have, and do feel like they are actually the best option for our climate. And, as I said above, I think the most important consideration in beekeeping is doing appropriate hive inspections and ensuring the health of your colonies - equipment choice seems to be an important, but secondary, consideration.

Top-bar hives: Another hive style that is becoming increasingly popular (if River Cottage Australia is used as the measure of popular self-sufficiency at least!) is the top bar hive, or Kenyan top bar. These are really cool hives, built in a shape that reminds me of a cradle, and often constructed with discarded wood. Instead of setting up the hive from bottom to top, like in the Langstroth style, the hive runs horizontally, so that brood is at the "back" of the cradle and the honey is at the "front". These hives are foundationless - the single bar of each frame is what the bees build their comb from.

Top-bar hives are really popular with permaculture gardeners because it is considered that the hive is much more natural and more closely resembles the bee's natural environment. I am really drawn to this idea, but I have my doubts as to what a bee's natural environment is... they will create a hive anywhere they choose, and often in completely absurd and seemingly unnatural spaces if left to their own devices! I guess my feeling on this is: managed hives are managed hives - they are human inventions and require human intervention. Whilst I like the idea of a more natural approach, my worry is that this leads people to think that the bees are just doing their own thing and no hive inspections or management is required at all. I can picture people attempting to catch swarms and plop them in their own homemade construction, without any instruction in good bee management, and I'd think that this is a sure-fire way to get and spread diseases. The other thing is that for our climate, where we get so cold over winter, there is far less insulation in the top-bar than in the Langstroth-style of hive, and it is more likely to lead to bee death due to cold exposure. So while this type of hive is not going to appear in our backyard anytime soon, they might be pretty great down on the coast if you still take the time to learn how to care for your bees.

Flow Hive: The only other common hive type that I have come across in my short stint of beekeeping is the Flow Hive. And we actually have one! It is currently sitting in its flat-pack boxes in the shed, where it has been since it arrived last year. Again, I had fully intended to start beekeeping with the wooden Langstroth hive we were gifted, as well as the Flow Hive. And I still might put the Flow Hive to use one day, although I have some concerns.

The Flow Hive is basically a Langstroth-style hive, but the honey super is made of plastic honeycomb, which can be split by turning a handle on the outside of the hive. This allows the honey to flow straight out and into your waiting jar. Amazing! There are lots of people who condemned the Flow Hive when it was released. I think some of the concerns relate to the use of plastics in the hive, and others to the prefabricated "honeycomb", which prevents the bees from drawing out their own comb, one of their key jobs in life. I can only think that those concerns are completely legitimate - it does seem to be messing with bee-haviour. Sadly, I didn't give any thought to that before we bought the Flow Hive, and now that I have just a teeny bit of knowledge I do have some unease with the concept... But I think other concerns about the Flow Hive encouraging backyard novices into beekeeping without taking the appropriate courses, and that the ease of the honey extraction might lead to people never opening the hives and doing appropriate inspections, are probably unfounded. Seriously, I don't think that they thing that was stopping people getting into beekeeping was ever the sticky mess of honey extraction. I just don't. For me, the reason it took so long to get into beekeeping was the question of how on earth to get the bees! I think there will be many many Flow Hives sitting in their flat-pack boxes all over Australia (and the world!) whilst their proud owners ponder how to get the bees that go in them.

Warre hive: The last hive that I often see mentioned in the books and articles is the Warre (pronounce war-aye) hives. They look a bit similar to the Langstroth from the outside, but they operate a bit differently inside and they sometimes have a nice little A-frame roof atop of them. I've never seen anybody selling or using a Warre hive though, and I'm definitely not familiar enough to give any information or opinions on them, but as they are around I thought it was at least prudent to mention them here.

Oh, and that beautiful basket hive up the very top of this post? That's a skep. They were one of the earliest type of man-made hives and you can still get them, but you usually have to destroy the whole basket (and therefore hive) to extract any honey, so they are perhaps not the best option for the backyard beekeeper!

So there you have it - my thoughts on hives... I hope that you will take this for what it is - the thoughts of an openly novice beekeeper. Please do feel welcome to contribute your thoughts and experience in the comments below!

Image sources: Skep hive // original photo //  original photo//  Top-bar hive  //  Flow Hive  //  Warre hive

Every little thing's gonna be all white

Last night we were all out in the garden, the kids 'riding' their bikes (my youngest clings like a monkey to a whatever you put him on, so 'riding' is a very loose term). I was pottering about, putting on sprinklers, picking the daily batch of cucumbers and zucchinis, feeding the chooks... The light was magical, the garden was glowing and it suddenly occurred to me that most everything in flower in our garden at the moment is white. Sure, there are a few pops of purple (there shall always be purple in my garden!) and a smattering of pink, but it was pretty much a white-out. So, in this instalment of 'Around here', everything's gonna be all white.

Around here, the dahlia 'Bounty' is flowering so abundantly. Bounty is one of my absolute favourites (although, if I am completely honest, all the dahlias get that award when they are in bloom):

Around here, the carpet roses have been wonderfully prolific this year. Honestly, if I could recommend one plant for fairly dry gardens to fill gaps and give you sooooo many beautiful blooms, it is a carpet rose! I will be putting in many more of these in the years to come.

Around here, there are blooming clumps of Gaura lindheimeri - guara (pronounced gore-a), also commonly known as bee blossom. I thought this was an Australian native until I googled it today... nope, it is actually a prairie plant from Texas. Regardless, it is doing so well in our front garden and receives very little water. A great one for pollinators too, as you can probably guess from its common name.

Around here, we have two giant mint bushes in our front garden, neither of which we planted. They both popped up from imported mulch, and have been such a pleasure all summer. The bees cover them all day long, enjoying the fluffy white flowers that have emerged as they headed to seed.

Around here, the Choisya ternata (commonly known as Mexican orange blossom) is finally in flower! Mexican orange blossom prefers temperate climates, however it seems they can survive in areas that receive heavy frosts and some snow... but goodness they are slow to grow. In areas that get down below -3°C they should be planted in a sheltered position. If you are in Canberra, I definitely suggest popping to Glebe Park to see the amazing choisya bushes tucked under some big trees there. They would all be in flower right now too and should smell divine!

Around here, the light catches so beautifully on Scaevola aemula 'Bondi white', also known as fairy fan flower. Now this one is definitely a native (I just double checked to make sure I'm not making that up!) and it's doing wonderfully well as a ground cover. The honey bees don't seem to be very attracted to it, but the native bees absolutely love it and it was on the fairy fan flower that I saw my one and only blue-banded bee (a sighting that has not been repeated, despite spending an inordinate amount of time just quietly sitting and waiting out there).

Around here, the Euphorbia hypericifolia 'Star Dust' has become my favourite of the euphorbias for its daintiness and absolute ease to grow. It requires basically no care, very little water and pretties up the garden in a very non-flashy way.

Around here, we finally have a salvia growing, the Salvia microphylla 'Heatwave Glimmer'. Every cottage-style garden needs a salvia (also known as the perennial sages) but it took a while for me to find one that I really liked. I would also like to put in some Salvia × sylvestnis 'May Night' variety... perhaps that can be a goal for next spring!

Around here we have one tiny plant of white Digitalis purpurea, which everyone knows as foxglove. This one has been overshadowed by a much more vigorous clump of purple variety, but it's had lots of flowers so far this year. The nectar guide of purple dots is beautiful, and works as intended to attract bees right up into it.

Around here, the ever productive Convolvulus 'Silvery moon' still has a few flowers on it - gosh it is proving to be a hardy groundcover! 

And around here, the newest addition to our garden is a white buddleja (or buddleia), picked up from the local nursery yesterday. Buddleja davidii is proving to be one of the very best shrubs in our garden - we already have several 'Black knight' (deep incandescent purple) and 'Pink delight' (a dusty pink variety). Buddleja is commonly known as butterfly bush and summer lilac, and both names are perfectly apt. They don't require any love and attention, and very little water, so they are perfect for a rural Australian garden. And the pollinators LOVE them!!!!

Around here we also have a whole lot of white in The Coopermarket, where lots of things have bolted and gone to seed for the summer. I've been very lax about letting things flower this year because I figure it makes our bees happy and will help them get their hives all set up for winter... It's a good excuse anyway!

What's been happening around your garden?

Garden notes // Crepe myrtles

Have you been driving around lately and realised you're puttering along at granny speed due to sticky-beaking at all the crepe myrtles that are in bloom? Me too! But worse, I've been pinching teeny cuttings of said flowers... Oooops! Recently when we were up in Sydney, I dragged my hubby around the neighbourhood streets to see if we could collect all the colours in bloom right now - he's very tolerant of my botanical thievery, thank goodness.

Crepe myrtles are the perfect backyard tree in my mind - they obviously have the crazy bursts of flowers in summer that brighten up the garden, attract pollinators and flop all about in a crazy Sideshow Bob kind of madness (to perfect "foraging" height, mind you!), but they are also a beautiful tree when not in flower too. Their mottled bark is lovely at all times of year and is a feature in otherwise bare winter gardens, especially when damp with morning dew. And their foliage, a gorgeous deep glossy green all summer, does a glorious autumn display and turns scarlet.

So, perfect backyard tree, and yet? Until recently we didn't have any in our garden! We have had two shrub varieties in our driveway for some years and I have just this year planted two dwarf varieties in one garden bed, but we have none of the big glorious trees, which is crazy given the size of our garden! My plan is to put another three or four at the very bottom of our terraces, which will add colour and a wind break.

Some garden notes

Botanical name: Lagerstroemia indica  //  Climate: Will grow well in most climates, from cool mountain through to hot, tropical regions  //  Height: very variable, so check the label - you can buy the big tree varieties that can grow up to 8m and are not suitable for smaller backyards, but there are also dwarf varieties which only grow to 1m, and shrubs/small tree varieties all sizes in between  //  Position: full sun  // Planting: in well-drained soil, with added compost. Can be planted at any time of year, and although you can buy them as bare-root stock, I think it is best to buy them when they're in flower to make sure that you are getting a colour that you love. They can also be propagated from hardwood cuttings, so if you find one that you absolutely love, see if the owner is happy to part with a piece (this is really way beyond "forager" territory, so it's best to ask!) // Pruning: some people believe that crepe myrtles should be heavily pruned back each year, but really this isn't necessary as they have a natural vase shape when left to do their own thing

To give you some idea of the colours available, these are the varieties we collected around a few Sydney streets... names are my best guess, and there are certainly even more shades in between these ranging from deep cerise through to the much subtler lavenders and white varieties.

Really, with the full range of sizes available and the variety of colour choices, it really is one of the very best backyard plants... Now I just have to take my own advice and plant a few!

Garden ramble // Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

For Christmas this year I bought my mum a copy of Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden by Janet Hawley. Mum had seen a talk by Wendy about her Secret Garden, and the book is simply stunning, so it seemed the best bet for somebody who doesn't like receiving "stuff"! 

Earlier this year, after we had both fallen in love with the images in the book and the story behind the garden's creation, we went to visit. It was a hot muggy day and the sun didn't bother coming out at all, but the visit was definitely worth schlepping the kids around on public transport for 2 hours!

The garden is tucked away beneath a lovely manicured (but entirely ordinary) council park in Lavender Bay, a short walk from the hustle and bustle of North Sydney. You would never know such a lush and anything-but-ordinary garden hides below - in fact, I have sat in Clark Park once waiting for a meeting and hadn't a clue what I was missing!

The garden is just below the entrance to Wendy and Brett's house - the one made famous by its views of Sydney Harbour captured in her husband Brett's paintings. Wendy started the garden by herself, guerrilla gardening before that was even a thing, and with no real idea of what she was going to achieve. She used the process of ripping out overgrown weeds from disused rail property to deal with the grief of losing first, Brett, and then their daughter Arkie. Labouring, hidden away from the world, very slowly creating beauty out of something deeply ugly - the grieving process mirrored in gardening, no?  

The garden isn't protected. North Sydney Council has managed to secure a temporary lease over the property from the NSW Government, but the fear is that one day this extremely lucrative piece of land will be sold off to developers and turned into high-density apartments... Which is a fate that is very hard to conjure when you spend some time in this pocket of green, but is all too possible when you think of Sydney's foreshores...

Anyway, I highly recommend that when you have some time in Sydney you visit the garden in person, but until then, a virtual ramble to bring some green (and purple!) into your Monday afternoon. I'll pepper you with some of Wendy's own words from the book, but first, this:

Starting a garden is a sign of hope, that it will grow and last.

Here's to being hopeful!

Wendy has used a lot of iresine (Iresine herbstii, also commonly known as bloodleaf) in the garden, and its purple pops so vividly against all the green. On that: 

"I have always gardened visually, putting together leaves and plants of different sizes and shapes, but I felt that there needed to be some colour in amongst all the green. The plum colour of the iresine looks beautiful with the light on it."

"This isn't a flower garden, as I don't have enough sun. It's more about using foliage, leaf shapes, textures and colours up against each other, like you're painting or sculpting. The pigments I use are plants, leaves, come flowers when I can get them, rocks, mulch, wood, bark. Light and shadow."

Tropical milk weed (Asclepius curassavica) which I identified using the apps I was testing the same weekend

"Steps and paths are the bones of the garden, along with rock faces of cliffs and the largest trees."

On the rock walls (made from sandstone used as landfill on this site): "I like plants to spill over the dry stone walls to soften them, but not to obscure them."

Ginger (Alphina zerumbet) in flower. On pinks: "I like some pinks, but they must have a strong balance of green. I hate the synthetic-looking inks in several modern breeds of plants, that look so genetically modified and fed on steroids, they shout out, "fake, bad mistake," like bad facelifts."

"These angel's trumpet flowers are commonly called daturas, although the variety I have, where the flowers hang downwards, is now officially named Brugmansia. I still call them daturas. The armchair experts will scold me, no doubt, but Brugmansia seem such an ugly name for such a heavenly flower."

"Most of the apricot-coloured daturas, and some of the white ones, I propagated from cuttings from historic Bronte House, when my friends the Mullers lived there. Daturas put on such a display of flowers all year round. They really are the dominant flowers of the Secret Garden."

The view of the garden from Clark Park... that's Wendy's house on the right (with the turret), and the Secret Garden drops down below the manicured lawn.

Who better to quote before you enter the garden than Van Morrison...? 

Garden ramble // Walter Peak High Country Farm (NZ)

This post is way overdue as we visited New Zealand late last spring, but I couldn't bare to let these photos wallow deep deep in my camera roll, never to be seen again. So, late they are,  but for those of you desperately awaiting spring's arrival they might be just the kick you need to survive the tail end of winter!

The Walter Peak High Country Farm is, these days, entirely run for tourism. I find it sad that nobody lives here and enjoys this garden and beautiful home, but I am grateful that it is open to the public and we were able to visit. In order to get here you have to catch a beautiful old steamboat across Lake Wakatipu, which is such a stunning way to arrive - looking around at the scenery it is hard to imagine animals being farmed in this dramatic landscape, let alone a traditional cottage garden growing here. But then you pull up at the wharf and are greeted by exactly that! It is truly stunning and the juxtaposition with the lake and the high barren peaks all around enhances the beauty of the garden.

Anyway, I will let the photos speak for themselves.... There a LOT of them (sorry, I promise this is a curated collection, but it is still lengthy). So perhaps grab a cup of tea and settle in!

When the grass is always greener…

{Warning: this is a heart-on-sleeve post about things not really garden related… proceed at your own peril}

So. Where to begin? I spent the better part of today planning to sell up and move. Specifically to this house:

The house is (obviously) gorgeous and the town of Burrawang has popped up in my life repeatedly for a few months, so seeing this house on all my feeds this morning felt like a sign. And yes, I do believe in signs communicated via the internet. Particularly when they have gorgeous kitchens with a window above the sink.

I feel like, lest anybody think I am trying to paint an idyllic picture of life in the country on The Tree Diaries, that I need to be honest about how often I have thought recently: “Right, I'm DONE. I’m sick of having our water fail. I’m sick of having to only run appliances in the middle of the day (and then only if it’s sunny). I’m sick of the things that break and having nobody who will drive this far out to fix them (unless we pay double their fee). I need to be able to walk to a cafe! I need a yoga class... one that doesn't involve a 3hr excursion! I need a flippin' community for goodness sake!"

And so that’s where I got to today. I was moving my whole family an hour and a half up the road to the Southern Highlands. To a village where everything (well, everything that I would need, which honestly mostly = tea, cake, conversation, and the odd burger) was within walking distance.

Anyhoo, at some point in this planning I got a bit panicked at how agreeable my husband seemed and how much turmoil I was just about to commit my whole family to (pup, chooks and bees included). But the problem is, I am serious about needing some things that I just don't have right now. 

So, taking a step back from my extreme plan of selling our home and moving away, I have been trying to work through the things that I really believe I need and how I can make them work.

Firstly, no matter what I do to our house or our life here, walking distances aren’t ever going to happen. I have to accept that and move on. Schlepping two children in the car a minimum of 20 minutes each way to anything is not going to change. But we don’t have to drive to enjoy walks and we have the most beautiful property to walk upon (albeit sometimes a bit too snake-y to attempt...). So I'm buying a secondhand double stroller and committing myself to walking with the kids and the pup whenever the urge strikes. There can even be tea and cake at the end of it, so long as I bake in advance. Driving is a part of our lives out here, so I just really need to come to terms with that once and for all. At least there’s never any traffic! 

Re the yoga class: I'm still stumped on that, so if anybody in the Bungendore region knows of one that is at around 7.30pm on a weeknight, please let me know!

And finally, the lack of a community. Well, frankly that one is completely my own fault. I am naturally introverted so living in the middle of nowhere, with effectively no neighbours or strangers to meet has been a bit too easy for me. When you don’t live in a community, community suddenly becomes an opt-in thing, and I guess that I kind of haven’t. Opted-in, that is. So I am committing myself to joining at least one playgroup (there are two in the general area, both within a 30 minute drive), so that I can spend time with other mums in similar circumstances. 

I’m also going to try to find all the really great bits of our area and compile myself a little “best bits” list. Stuff all those Southern Highlander instagrammers* who post their gorgeous little cafes or vineyards or cute shops and the like. We have great places in our local area and I am determined to enjoy them (*not really, please keep posting those beautiful photos!). As much as I adore social media for the inspiration and community that we share there, it is so very very easy to fall into the “grass is greener” trap. It’s like advertising - you know that it is selling you a dream, but you buy buy buy. I guess that we just have to remind ourselves that is a dream, and that somebody else sees our lives the same way.

Lastly, I am acknowledging that at least in part the appeal of a house in a village is the more manageable size of the garden. Mine is defeating me at the moment. So, soooooo, I am contemplating hiring a gardener one morning a week. Except that once again, it is hard to find people to do such things when you don't live near anywhere. So that's a task I have ahead of me.

Okay, so. There's that. Heart on sleeve. I finally figured out how to switch on comments should you know of evening yoga in Bungers or great places that are local to us, or if wish to share your thoughts about any of the above (please do!). Do you feel that the grass is often greener on the other side of instagram?

The 'why' of inspiration

Last year I bought the Australian House & Garden-published book Great Australian Gardens. The whole book is drool-worthy for a garden lover, particularly a lover of old, country gardens like me. But there is one photograph of a garden in Tasmania that stops me in my page-flipping tracks every time I open the book.

It overlaps pages 142-143 and is of the garden of a former coaching inn in Tasmania that dates back to 1826 called The Jolly Farmer.

The thing is, I have never really stopped to examine WHY I am so smitten with this image. What is it about this particular part of this particular garden that makes me stop and stare? So today I sat and overanalysed my feelings in the hope that I could take some things and incorporate them into our garden.

Firstly, I think that the enormous shade trees have an awful lot to do with my swooning. The trees are not identified in the accompanying caption, but it is easy to make out a gingko biloba and possibly an English oak or an ash. Regardless, they are big old established trees and they are GORGEOUS! So, my number one take-home from this is that it can’t be easily replicated… No amount of analysing is going to produce 100 year old (plus?) trees. But we are planting plenty of (potentially) big shade trees, so in many years to come we may have a semblance of this space.

Next, whilst the predominant colour is green (the owner says “I’d rather have greenery with just the odd bit of colour”), there is a splattering of pink and white to keep your eye wandering and interested. My favourite colours in the garden are white, pink and purple (funny, as they are my least favourite colours everywhere outside of the garden!), so this is probably a big source of the appeal of this image. 

I also love the symmetry in the man-made structures in this garden - the shed lines up perfectly with the gravel pathway, which lines up neatly with the perfectly squared raised vege beds. This is pleasing to the eye because it contrasts nicely with the mixed-height, thoughtfully “jumbled” plants. I have never been drawn to the perfect parterre with neatly edged box hedges and symmetrical plantings, but the symmetry in the structures (as opposed to the plants) is deeply appealing here. This is good because my husband is a very precise structure builder (think: multiple spirit-levels, hours of minor adjustments), and we have squared lines in our vege beds and adjacent chook coop. My haphazard planting doesn’t diminish this symmetry - rather it probably acts to enhance it. I think we need to continue this pattern in future structures, which leads me to…

That shed! Okay, so I don't particularly need a potting shed. We have an enormous garage with plenty of space for my gardening things. Butttttttt, we do ‘need’ a greenhouse, and this shed is giving me all sorts of inspiration for what might work in our garden. Something that is charming, has character (or could earn some in time) and a classic shape.  

Lastly, the gravel paths that lead to, and around, the vege garden beds. We have simple crushed granite pathways throughout our backyard and orchard and they work wonderfully to lead the way. In The Coopermarket however, we have no paths. We have been steadily dumping weeds in there to try to bring some life back into the ground, which had been stripped of all topsoil. It is working really well, to the point that the spaces between the raised vege beds are now often overgrown. If we don’t get in there with the mower once a week it becomes a bit of a jungle, and a jungle out here means great hidey-holes for snakes. I have noticed that lately I have spent even less time than usual  in The Coopermarket because I am a bit sketched out. So I wonder if we shouldn’t put gravel pathways between each of the eight garden beds (possibly with a green belt down the centre, where we have an ornamental pear tree…), to help to keep it all clear around the beds? This is a new definite-maybe project!

I think those are the major things that draw me in to this photo. It’s interesting sometimes to take a step back from the photos that really appeal to us (the ones that we are pinning or tearing from magazines or post-it noting in books) and pull apart WHY we love them so much. Even if the only thing to be learned is to plant 150 year old trees :)

How to ruin a harvest: blossom end rot

We just arrived home after a week away to find our first perfectly ruby-red ripe tomatoes of the year... blighted by blossom end rot - blerg.

This is the second time in five years that we have had blossom end rot, which is an entirely preventable problem. The first time we had it we were complete rookies in the vege garden and I thought I had learned from my mistakes and that we wouldn't get it ever again... Ha! But as it has been a funny season with different rain patterns to the past few years, I figured we may not be the only ones who have discovered our tomatoes blighted by this problem. So perhaps I can lend some advice from our experience with it. 

So, what is blossom end rot (BER)? It's not a disease or fungus or virus... it's more of a "problem" which affects your plants due to their prevailing conditions. This is good because it means that you don't have some pest running rampant through your garden. This is bad because it means there aren't any quick fixes. It can affect tomatoes, melons, capsicum and eggplant.

What causes it? BER is caused by a calcium deficiency in soil. The most common way to get it is by inconsistently watering your plants, especially at the crucial time when it has very early fruit. Even if there is absolutely no problem with the calcium levels in your soil, if the watering during that critical early stage of fruiting is insufficient or inconsistent it can lead to insufficient calcium uptake by the plant and then: blossom end rot. 

Another common cause is over-fertilising. Too much nitrogen and potassium leads to acidic soils - which means a calcium deficiency leading to blossom end rot.

I am almost certain that both this occurrence of end rot and the one five years ago can be put down to watering issues. In our first year here, we were both working long days. In the summer months we would get up early to water before we left and then in the late evening when we got home we would do the same. Quite simply, this was too much watering... since then we have learnt that once a day is absolutely perfect. This year we went away for a couple of stretches, right when everything was in late flower/starting to develop fruit. We didn't have a watering system in place and so we suddenly went from daily watering to no watering (except when it rained... i.e. rarely). It is also possible I didn't adequately fork through the chook fertiliser that I added to our garden beds in early spring, which may have led to high nitrogen/low calcium in the soil - certainly I think this has at least played a part in this year's BER because so far (finger's crossed!!) it seems to be isolated to three or four plants at the far end of one garden bed.

So, what to do about it? Really, of all the problems you can get, this one isn't too bad. Kinda gross, yes, but not too hard to prevent. Firstly, if you already have end rot on your tomatoes, you will certainly know it and it is probably too late to completely resolve the problem. Here in the Southern Tablelands we still have lots of flowers on our plants yet to set fruit. So, if the pH of the soil is immediately amended by adding lime (calcium), there may be some fruit which survive unaffected. I have heard there are also calcium sprays that you can get to directly spray on to the plants which would obviously work more quickly, but I'm not sure whether or not they are okay for bees - I'll have to look into them further. You should remove any blighted fruit as soon as possible so that it doesn't encourage fungal growth (which is a lot more of a problem to control than BER, and is likely to spread to other healthy plants).

You can eat the tomatoes affected by end rot, just chop off the gross parts and use as per usual (although they won't be dinner party-presentable, they will be perfectly fine in cooking). If you really don't want to eat them, they are fine to go to the chooks or into the compost as they are not diseased.

For future years, to prevent a BER problem, make sure you test your soil pH before planting (you can get little tests at hardware stores and nurseries) and amend it as needs be. Don't over-fertilise and do make sure that it is really well forked through. Make sure that you water plants often and consistently but don't overdo it, and mulch each garden bed well to prevent moisture loss in the dry times.

Basically, keep it simple and consistent and exercise moderation in all things... probably a good plan for life in general as well as in the garden I suppose!