Open Day

Last weekend we opened our place as part of the Australian Open Garden Scheme.

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I chose August to open because that’s when our Phillip Island Hibiscus hedge, Hibiscus insularis, is in flower. Well, in the end it didn’t because the recent frost set it back a fortnight. I also chose this time because right now, in Brisbane’s wintertime, gardening is at its easiest.

Our lawn has greened up after that surprising dalliance with frost on the night of 19th July. We were lucky with -0.5C. That night temperatures dropped to -15C in Tamworth, NSW, and back across to our side of the border severe frost hit the Gold Coast hinterlands. Tall tree ferns were torched, mature bananas looked melted. Everywhere frost had been it had left a brown ‘tide mark’ on evergreen trees. Even local native eucalypts, up to 6m metres tall, were totally burned brown. The landscape, parched by drought, has now had the moisture in its surviving trees squeezed out by frost. This spring we’ll have a risk of very severe bushfires. A nearby reserve along Wynnum Road has just burned, and there have been three other fires affecting our part of Brisbane. Cough! Cough! Pass the antihistamines…

In Bayside Brisbane I suspected that the long lingering effect of the El Nino would bring a winter of cloudless skies – and the risk of frost. So, hedging my bets, I planted warmth-loving Portuguese cabbage ‘Couve Tronchuda’ in case we got a normal, warm winter and I planted cold-loving kale ‘Red Russian’ in case we had frost. Both are currently looking particularly voluptuous. As the open day drew nearer I began looking forward to eating my first cabbage and kale of the season. I held off harvesting any until all our visitors had had a chance to see, touch and taste my brassicas. I remembered Mary Moody’s warning as, on Monday, we tucked in to our first serving of rich-flavoured cabbage. ‘If you’re not careful you’ll find eating your crops become secondary when harvesting means ruining the good looks of a display’.

Three people feed from our garden. Damien, the third denizen of sustainable subtropical suburban living, sowed some heritage broad beans – ‘Crimson-flowered’ and ‘Coles’ Prolific’ in late autumn and these are now in full flower. Some visitors said they have had difficulty in growing broad beans in this area, but we haven’t had any problems, apart from blackfly. This year I have been careful to give them little nitrogen and they’ve remained clean. Aphids are drawn to plants that have had too much nitrogen: their sappy growth is also more susceptible to mildew.

This winter I’ve had a fling with heritage peas, seed acquired from the Seed Savers’ Foundation, an international organisation that protects and conserves traditional crops. As a director of Seed Saver’s I feel it my duty to have regular, passionate love affairs with rare and curious old vegetables. So this winter it’s peas – seven distinctly different cultivars of snow and shelling peas.

My peas are at their best – vigorous, freely flowering and podding and deliciously free of powdery mildew which so often besets modern cultivars in this district from August onwards. ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’, a snow pea cultivar that I’ve grown from my own seed three times now, is a winner for flavour, quality pods and vigour. It only gets powdery mildew after setting seed for next year, whereas most local modern peas go white with mould before harvest. Already, without even tasting any peas, the pinkish flowers of ‘Skinless’ are so pretty and plants look so vigorous, I must save some seed to grow them again.

Cherry tomatoes chose to emerge from one well composted garden bed along with eggplant, basil and huauzontle. These seedlings conveniently sprouted in almost parallel rows.

Then there’s my Chinese celery – a creature of the mid-winter solstice. Sow or plant them in autumn and they slowly establish. Chinese celery responds to the lengthening days after the 21st of June – the mid-winter solstice – by growing larger and readying its strength to flower spectacularly in early spring. Native and honeybees love it’s flat-headed flowering umbels. Busy hoverflies, so helpful for controlling aphids, just loves Chinese celery flowers. They taste a bit stronger, need slightly less water and tolerate a slightly warmer growing season to perform well than ordinary celery. We eat them like a herb, and add chopped stems and leaves to flavour salads, soups, stews and stir fries.

My cherry tomatoes are bearing prolifically in this sunny winter with low humidity and negligible rainfall, that we’ve started preserving them for eating later on. People asked how best to protect tomatoes from the many pests and diseases that afflict tomatoes in the warm seasons. I avoid all these problems simply by planting in autumn and clearing the plants out by the end of September – after that the fruit fly, root and foliar fungi, heat and humidity make them much harder to grow. After trialling a variety of tomato types like roma, beefsteak and cherries, I find cherry tomatoes easiest of all. Ten plants have been producing 3kg a week for the last month.

I broke our usual rules and lightly watered the front garden and the lawn five times to perk things up for opening. In the front garden there’s pretty, nectar-rich flowers of succulents, like various Kalanchoe and Aloe vera, Salvia discolor and – soon – Hibiscus insularis, that nourish garden birds through these drought-stricken times.

Of late there’s been sufficient dew around for birds to take their daily morning drinks from pools of night-gathered dewfall in my roof’s otherwise dry gutters. Best of all – rain is forecast later this week. It’s been seven weeks since we last saw any rain.

Our thanks for a very successful weekend go:

* to Denise and Henk Horchner, fellow members of the Horticultural Media Association Qld, who kept us on track, made some profitable suggestions, and offered some of their wonderfully different subtropical perennials for sale;

* to Kim Woods-Rabbidge, Qld Coordinator of the Open Garden Scheme, for her professionalism which ensured everything went smoothly as planned;

…And of course our very special thanks to all of you who gave the thumbs up to sustainability, popping by to see how 350 litres of recycled sewage water, less than the Level 5 watering restrictions 420 litres daily target – is keeping Jerry, Jeff and Damo supplied with fresh, organic produce….

And those who missed us but would like to discover what a garden could be growing in Brisbane’s glowing, golden, subtropical autumn, our next engagement with the Australian Open Garden Scheme will be in May 2008. Book online via:


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