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Saturday, 30 November 2013

Shasta daisies in the garden

Not much gardening has been happening over the past couple of weeks - raking up leaves, tending to the compost heap, neatening edges, nothing exciting.

I've got no Shasta daisies in my garden this year, but I've always had a patch somewhere. What happened? (Note to self: get some more Shastas). As a child I always admired the Shasta Daisies in my father’s garden. What I remember most was the dazzling brightness of the white blooms that always offset the bright colours of the dahlias, larkspur, gazanias, arctotis and zinnias that grew so prolifically under the African sun.

The simple white flowers with yellow button centres are a symbol of purity and are perfect for cutting. Easy to grow, they are a favourite for beginner flower gardeners and are effective when planted in small groups.

Crab Spiders seem to favour Shastas as their favorite while ambush-hunting their prey in flowers. These tiny spiders take on the colour of the flower they're sitting on and it's wonderful to come across a pure white or bright yellow little specimen on your flowers.

A white crab spider catching a butterfly on some Shasta daisies 

Yellow crab spider 

Until recently, Shasta Daisies were considered members of the Chrysanthemum family. But the daisies’ lack of fragrance and hairless stems caused them to be recently reclassified to Leucanthemum, the Sunflower family.

These Daisies like rich, fast draining soil, ample water and lots of sunshine. However, they are hardy and will tolerate poor soil conditions and partial shade. Work some old animal manure or compost into the soil to help promote abundant blooms. Picking often and cutting off dead flowers will extend their bloom period.

So do yourself a favour and get some of these easy-growing, sun-loving daisies for your garden and you'll always have an abundance of butterflies and ready-to-pick flowers for the vase.

Shasta daisies at my pond a couple of seasons ago 


Thursday, 28 November 2013

Remember the birds in winter

In winter the wild birds can have a hard time finding enough food. Turn your garden into a haven which they will frequently visit for something to eat.

Fill a pine cone with peanut butter and then roll it in some bird seed. Tie your pine cone to a tree with a piece of string or wire and soon you will have dozens of new feathered friends flocking into your garden for this lovely snack.

A quick, easy and inexpensive way to cater for the fruit eaters is to bend a wire coat hanger into a heart-shape. Add another piece of soft, pliable wire to the top of the hanger onto which to attach the apple, hang in a tree and voila! bob's your uncle! The Black-headed Orioles regularly visit to enjoy the fruit I put out.


Sunday, 24 November 2013

Queen of my own compost heap!

"I'm queen of my own compost heap; I'm getting used to the smell!"

A couple of months ago I started a compost heap again. Can't remember why I gave up the last one... Probably when I got my chickens and all my time was taken up playing with them and building them a coop. But buying commercial compost has not been working for me, the last time I bought some and composted the garden, one of my chickens got terribly ill with Avian botulism. It might have been the commercial compost and it might not have been, but it was too much of a co-incidence that she got sick a day or two after I had composted. Unfortunately she is one of those chickens that eats ANYTHING, stuff that my other girls would turn their noses up at, and I feel one just doesn't know what chemicals are put into even "organic' compost.

So don’t throw away materials when you can use them to improve your lawn and garden! Start composting instead! There is something magical about taking a pile of waste and turning it into black gold – because this is what composting does: it transforms discarded organic matter into nutrient-rich compost. I find it highly satisfying having a separate bin in the kitchen for potato peels, tea bags and other food waste. This gets emptied on top of my compost heap every morning and three times a week all the leaf litter and grass cuttings from the garden is added. I bought a couple of tins of (live) earthworms from a fishing tackle shop and, besides adding them directly to my garden, have also put some into the compost heap and I've been surprised at how they have multiplied!

Compost is the end product of a complex feeding pattern involving hundreds of different organisms, including bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects. What remains after these organisms break down the organic materials is the rich, earthy substance your garden will love. Composting replicates nature’s natural system of breaking down materials on the forest floor. In every forest, grassland, jungle, and garden, plants die, fall to the ground, and decay. They are slowly dismantled by the small organisms living in the soil. Eventually these plant parts disappear into the brown crumbly forest floor. This humus keeps the soil light and fluffy. I therefore hardly ever clean up leaf litter from within my flower beds and though some might not like the look of such an "untidy" garden, I also enjoy watching the Thrushes scratching around in the leaves, enjoying the insects and snails hiding underneath.

This work is deeply simple. All you need is a shady piece of ground large enough for a compost pile that is at least 1×1x2m. First you fork open the soil beneath your proposed pile and arrange a base made of old plant stalks, stems, and soft woody debris. Next you mound on top of this base a deep layer of green, nitrogen-rich materials like garden weeds and grass clippings, mixed with animal manure and kitchen scraps.

The following layer is dry, carbonaceous material like straw and old leaves, or wood chips and sawdust, all well watered so that your pile is nice and moist. Continue to layer your compost green material and then let dry until you have a tall, noble pile, as high as you can reach.

Every compost pile is alive, teeming with billions of invisible micro-organisms digesting your autumn mountain of garbage. In a few short days a healthy compost pile begins to steam with metabolic life as clouds of heat-loving bacteria break down raw protein and complex carbohydrates into amino acids and simple sugars, generating temperatures as high as 72ยบC.

This breakdown stage is followed a few weeks later by a build-up stage that lasts for more than a month as complex fungal networks absorb the pile’s free gases into their web work of mycelia, reducing leaching of nutrients, disarming pollutants and disease pathogens, and physically binding soil and compost together, creating stable aggregates that increase water infiltration and retention.

In the last stage of decomposition a few months later—or sooner, if you turn your pile—your mound will be alive with sweet, woodsy-smelling compost laced with up to one hundred industrious compost insects per square foot, intertwined with writhing red compost worms testifying by their presence that decomposition is complete.

Compost Materials
Almost any organic material is suitable for a compost pile. The pile needs a proper ratio of carbon-rich materials, or “browns,” and nitrogen-rich materials, or “greens.” Among the brown materials are dried leaves, straw, and wood chips. Nitrogen materials are fresh or green, such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps.

The 50/50 Rule: A perfect mixture of material consists of brown (carbon-based material) and green (nitrogen-based) material by weight.

To Turn or Not to Turn: The organisms that live inside your compost bin need air to survive. Mix or turn the pile three to five times per season using a pitchfork, garden hoe or shovel. Proper aeration can make a big difference. You will know if your bin is not getting enough oxygen if the pile smells of ammonia.

Moist, Not Damp: The organisms need water to survive, but not too much or they will drown. The ideal moisture level of your compost pile should be like that of a wrung out sponge.

Surface Area
Small is Best: Cut up or shred organic waste materials before placing them into the compost bin. This increases the surface area and speeds up decomposition. You can also store your kitchen scraps in your freezer to speed up decomposition, as your materials break down at the cell level when frozen.

When it comes to WHAT NOT TO COMPOST, the best is to use your common sense. Obvious items like chemically-treated wood products, diseased plants, human and pet waste and MEAT, BONES, AND FATTY FOOD WASTES are big no-no's, as is plastic in any form, tins and glass. Keep it natural and you can't go wrong.

And remember: "A good compost pile should get hot enough to poach an egg, but not so hot it would cook a lobster!"


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Country Diary - The Works of Nature

I know no subject more elevating, more amazing, more ready to the poetical enthusiasm, the philosophical reflection, and the moral sentiment than the works of nature. Where can we meet such variety, such beauty, such magnificence? 
- James Thomson

Just across the road from us are a couple of stray Oak trees on the pavement, a few left over from an era when it demarcated someone's drive-way entrance leading to their farm. Scrounging beneath them and picking up acorns is something I really enjoy doing. This sketch was of a find a couple of summers ago and I still have the acorn but the leaf has since dried and crumbled.

The acorn may be small, but it holds a world inside. The nut consists of three parts: the cup (or cupule), a tough outer shell, and a kernel. The kernel is made up of two fat-rich seed leaves called cotyledons which enclose a tiny embryo at the pointed end of the nut. Acorns serve as an essential food for animals and in some cultures, for humans. Acorns contain large amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat, making them a favored food of many animals. It is said that Oak trees don't produce acorns until they are 50 years or older, but I doubt that, as I had an Oak in my previous garden and it produced acorns within 10 years.

Because acorns are too heavy to travel very far from their parent tree, the oak is dependent on animals such as birds and squirrels to disperse its seed. According to one source, the odds of one acorn actually growing into an oak tree are very small--less than 1 in 10,000.

Opposite the two old Oaks are a few Pine trees and I've got a bag full of cones collected from under them. They look beautiful sprayed gold or white for Christmas ornaments and I also use them as bird feeders in my garden, coating them with peanut butter and sprinkling with seeds or pushing in some minced meat for the Robin and Shrikes. I've been meaning to sketch them for quite some time now but am a bit daunted by all the different spikes I'll have to draw to scale! It's next on my list...


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Mother Nature is awfully ingenious

Mother Nature is awfully ingenious; she has come up with quite a few methods to keep bugs away and plants healthy and thriving. It turns out that plants, like people, prefer certain company.

One of the great things about gardening is that in some ways your garden can take care of itself. But there are a few things that you can do to make your work a little easier. One of these things is to select plants for your garden that will help control insect pests.

Sunflowers (Helianthus) are great companions and beautiful throughout the garden. Plant with Cucumbers, beans, and vining plants to provide a trellis. They are hardy and a great trap crop for aphids and other pests. They typically produce plenty of their own seeds to use next year.

W&N watercolour on Bockingford - ©Maree Clarkson 

Vibrant and strong, Sunflowers are symbolic of adoration.

I see you there in glory shining bright,
Following the sun and its path of light.
Standing tall above all others in the field,
You grow, conquer, and do not yield.
The little birds take great delight
In playing round you, from day to night.
With your petals of yellow and leaves of green
How very easily you are seen!
~Extract from 'Poem to a Sunflower' By Katherine R. Lane 

I use sunflowers as a way to draw aphids away from my other plants. Ants move their colonies onto sunflowers. The sunflowers are tough enough that they suffer no damage. Sunflowers also attract wasps, which are great insects to have around as they prey on a variety of harmful insects.

These hardy, easy-to-grow annuals brighten up any garden with their large, dramatic heads and petals. Sunflowers can grow anywhere from two to fifteen feet tall depending on the variety, and their seeds can even be harvested and enjoyed as a delicious snack.

A Sunflower that took root on our smallholding just outside the garden fence last summer. I usually wait for these to mature and then pick the head to give to my Cockatoo, Danny. It keeps him busy for hours!

Sunflowers thrive in warm to hot climates with full sunshine during the day. Climates with long hot summers are perfect for growing sunflowers. Sunflowers prefer a slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline soil so they grow easily in my garden which has mostly an acidic soil. Many sunflowers just appear in my garden, obviously seeds dropped by birds, but I also sow seeds from time to time. Choose a site in full sun on the south side of the garden (in South Africa), so the tall plants won't shade your other flowers or vegetables. Sunflowers aren't fussy about soil but the one thing that can harm them is flooded soil, so water sparingly or have a well-drained spot for them. Plant the large seeds no more than 1 inch (2.5cm) deep and 4 to 6 inches (10-15cm) apart in well-dug, loose soil after it has thoroughly warmed, from mid-august to late October.

If you plan to harvest seeds, keep an eye out for ripeness. The back of the flower head will turn from green to yellow and the bracts will begin to dry and turn brown; this happens about 30 to 45 days after bloom and seed moisture is about 35%. Generally, when the head turns brown on the back, seeds are usually ready for harvest.

Sunflowers are virtually as care free as their smiling faces suggest. However, they are sometimes infected with fungal diseases such as mildews and rusts. Downy Mildew causes mottling and pale areas on upper leaf surfaces and a fuzzy mold growth on their undersides. Eventually the leaves wither and die. The oldest leaves are usually infected first. Downy mildew is most likely to occur on cool damp nights and warm humid days. It spreads by means of tiny spores carried to plants and soil by wind and rain or transmitted by garden tools. It will not kill a mature plant; it just mars its appearance. I normally just leave it unless it's a serious infection, then I remove the plant or spray it with a home-made mix of dishwashing liquid mixed with some tobacco in water. This seems to keep it at bay.

Wit & Wisdom

- Need a bird seeder? Save dry heads and set them out in winter.
- Save thick sunflower stems and dry them for winter kindling.
- Interesting Fact: An anonymous buyer paid over $39 million in 1987 for Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers.
- Where sunflower seeds are regularly used as bird feed, toxins from the accumulated seed hulls eventually kill the grass below. Harmless to animals or people, the toxins eventually biodegrade in the soil.

The start of beauty - She will be beautiful one day – turning her yellow face to the sun – gracing the landscape with sunshine A young Sunflower on my smallholding. 

A close-up of a sunflower in my garden

24th October 2013 - Stray seeds taking root in my garden 

29th October 2013 - Already 1.5m tall - Soon these two sunflowers will be 3meters tall and I'll be able to harvest the seeds for my bird feeders. 

 12thNovember - already 2m tall - can't wait for the flowers!


Thursday, 14 November 2013

A change in scenery

My first Hydrangeas of the season

We all know that the ph of the soil affects what colour your Hydrangeas are - in most species the flowers are white, but some species (notably H. macrophylla), can be blue, red, pink, light purple, or dark purple. In these species the colour is affected by soil pH. For H. macrophylla and H. serrata cultivars, the flower colour can be determined by the relative acidity of the soil: an acidic soil (pH below 6) will usually produce flower colours closer to blue, whereas an alkaline soil (pH above 6) will produce flowers more pink. This is caused by a colour change of the flower pigments in the presence of aluminium ions which can be taken up into hyper-accumulating plants.

Last year's Hydrangeas

But here's the thing. Last year most of my Hydrangeas were pink, and this year, the first flowers that have appeared are blue. So what has changed with my soil between the end of last summer and the beginning of this summer? The only new thing that has happened is that I composted my whole garden at the end of winter and I suspect that the compost mix was probably high in aluminium sulfate.

However, Hydrangeas often change colour on their own when they are planted or transplanted. They are adjusting to the new environment. It is not unusual to see several different colours on one shrub the next year after planting.

 Another bush, mostly blue with hints of pink

Another bush flowering blue with a pink one on the same bush

Although 70-75 species of hydrangea plants are native to southern and eastern Asia (China, Japan, Korea, the Himalayas, and Indonesia) and the Americas, no South African garden seems to be complete without them - we have made them our own "Christmas flower", as they start blooming in November, reaching a peak in December and over Christmas. Instead of holly and ivy, our Christmas tables and mantles are decorated with Hydrangeas and their big green leaves.

 Last year's flowers going through the drying process

Pink Hydrangeas on my dining room table last year

It is best to pick blooms when they are at least a few weeks old. The older the bloom, the longer it will last. Colour pigments should be fully developed before cutting.

A few Facts About Hydrangeas

- Hydrangeas are one of very few plants that accumulate aluminium. Aluminium is released from acidic soils, and forms complexes in the hydrangea flower giving them their blue colour.

- Hydrangeas produce their main flower clusters from the tips of shoots formed from the previous season.

- If the terminal buds of these shoots are destroyed, the plant usually fails to bloom. The chief causes of destruction of the terminal buds are excessive winter cold and uninformed pruning.

- Hydrangeas are also widely used as dried flowers, especially the blue Hydrangeas.

- Although most Hydrangeas bloom in summer and fall, a few Hydrangeas have developed the ability to set new bloom buds in the spring after the old ones have been pruned off or damaged.


Monday, 11 November 2013

Art & Gardening

“To ‘bee’ in nature is to experience one of our planet’s most awesome gifts. Spring makes its own statement, so loud and clear that the gardener seems to be only one of the instruments, not the composer.”

Art and gardening go hand-in-hand. Nature provides a plethora of subjects for an artist - anything from a blade of grass to a ten meter tall tree and everything in between, including all the little mammals, insects, reptiles and birds that inhabit our outdoor space.

Hydrangea flower - ink sketch and watercolour

Certainly being inspired by my garden and nature has led me on some unexpected paths. While sketching a subject I have often had to research it's name if I didn't know it, which has broadened my horizons immensely and also given me insight into the habits and habitats of many of the fauna and flora I have sketched.

Hydrangeas from my garden in a vase on my kitchen table

Gardening has taught me to work with nature, not against it. It has taught me not to waste water, to recycle yard trimmings and kitchen plant-based scraps into compost and wisely disposing of plastic pots, soil bags. etc. An important rule in my gardening is to do no harm. Like avoiding chemical fertilizers that run into rivers, oceans and wetlands and not planting invasive species that could wipe out our native varieties.

Red-chested Cuckoo in my garden (Piet-my-Vrou)

I also do not use pesticides and herbicides, which tend to kill many more creatures than the one or two bugs you're trying to get rid of. By creating a friendly wildlife habitat, it provides food and shelter for birds, butterflies, lizards and ladybugs, all great sketching matter!

Bee on a Shasta daisy  - Visiting flowers can be a dangerous occupation for a bee! Many assassin bugs and crab spiders hide in flowers to capture unwary bees and many bees are lost to birds in flight. Insecticides used on blooming plants kill many bees, both by direct poisoning and by contamination of their food supply.

Sketching in nature has taught me to pay great attention to detail. It has made me aware of the plight of our fauna and flora as they struggle to keep up with the ever-encroaching 'progress' of our towns and cities.

Guineafowl in my garden 

A few years ago we regularly had guinea fowl passing through our property, great opportunities for sketching them. Over the past few years I don't see guinea fowl for months on end. It will certainly be a sad day when artists will have to resort to painting from photographs only...


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Going indigenous

Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) building his nest. 
Camera : Canon EOS 550D

We’ve all met different kinds of gardeners. There are ornamental gardeners who aspire to have a garden worthy of showcasing in the pages of gardening magazines. There are vegetable gardeners who proudly feed their families (and neighbourhood) with the bounty of their land. And there are passionate wildlife gardeners who find great joy from a new bird or butterfly who has chosen to visit their wildlife garden.

I am a wildlife gardener. Personally, the entire reason that I garden is to create habitats for wildlife, and every choice that I make in my garden is made with the needs of wildlife as a top priority. What is beautiful to me is not the individual “specimens” of plants scattered through a garden, but the birds, butterflies, bees, insects, lizards, frogs and toads, and other wildlife who make their home in a garden that I have created. And happily, my garden will never appear in the pages of Garden & Home!

2006 - Young Acacia's and Celtis's at my wildlife pond 

2006 - Young Acacia's and Celtis's at my wildlife pond 

2009 - Young Acacia's and Celtis's at my wildlife pond 

By 2011 the Acacia's, Celtis's and Karee's were fairly well-established at my pond 

2011 - starting to take shape 

The White Karee's in my garden when planted in 2005 

The Acacia karroo and Karee's in 2009 

Planting mostly indigenous has really paid off. When my Celtis's, Acacias and Karee's were small, most of the birds, besides Sparrows and Weavers, were only occasional visitors to my garden. Since the trees and shrubs have become 'grown-up', an amazing array of birds have moved in, living and nesting here. Black-eyed Bulbuls, Olive Thrush, Ground-scraper Thrush, Robins, Mynah, Black-throated Canary, Fiscal Shrike, Crested Barbet, White-browed Sparrows, Red-headed Finches, Red Bishop, Golden Bishop, Bronze Mannekins, Greater-striped Swallows, Rock Pigeons, Laughing Doves, Ring-neck Doves and White-eyes.

Daily visitors (don't know where they live!) are the Black Sunbird, Black-headed Oriole, Bokmakierie, Diederick's Cuckoo, Wood Hoopoe, Redbilled Woodhoopoe, Fork-tailed Drongo, Redwinged Starling, Glossy Starling, Arrow-marked Babbler, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Mousebirds, Red-faced Mousebird, Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-Vrou), Cape Turtle Doves and the occasional Paradise Flycatcher, Grey Lourie and Pin-tailed Wydah. I've even had a couple of King Fishers, although goodness knows why, I don't keep any fish.

Black-headed Oriole (Oriolus larvatus) at one of my feed tables 

Ground-scraper Thrush (Psophocichla litsitsirupa) keeping an eye on me as I walk through the garden. they just love scratching through the loose leaf litter

Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) fledgling - these little birds are SO trusting and unafraid... 

Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) contemplating a nesting site in one of the Acacia's

Red-faced Mousebird (Urocolius indicus) - they are daily visitors now and I still don't know what attracts them as I never see them at the fruit tables 

Grey Lourie (Corythaixoides concolor) visiting 

A Glossy Starling (Lamprotornis nitens) making use of the bathing facilities

Indigenous planting has many benefits. Besides drawing birds, wildlife and insects endemic to your area, there is less chance of losing any plants due to extreme heat or cold. Planting indigenous species provides a living environment that is part of the local natural system. Indigenous plants have evolved as part of the entire biological population of an area. A strong interdependence exists between indigenous plants, animals, insects, and micro-organisms. Planting indigenous species can contribute to the maintenance of a balanced and diverse eco-system.

With habitat disappearing at an alarming rate, you can help provide wildlife with an oasis of the habitat they need to thrive. The native plants that you use can meet the needs, including food and cover, of native wildlife without causing long-term damage to local plant communities. With the right diversity of native plants in your urban landscape, you can provide:

• Protective cover for many animals.
• Seeds, nuts, and fruits for monkeys and other mammals.
• Seeds, fruits, and insects for birds.
• Nectar for Sunbirds and butterflies.
• Larval host plants for butterfly caterpillars.

Caterpillars (larvae) of the Speckled emperor Moth

Caterpillars (larvae) of the Speckled emperor Moth at the base of an Acacia karroo

The adult Speckled Emperor Moth after hatching sitting on a Restios

However, one of the most important advantages of planting indigenous is saving water – you also save yourself money and contribute towards overcoming the world's critical shortage of water. 

The beautiful pom-pom flowers of the Indigenous Acacia karroo

Not only are indigenous plants water-savers and low maintenance but some also exude a wonderful perfume. A fragranced garden appeals to one of most evocative senses and with careful planning one can have a perfumed garden throughout the year. Use scented bulbs like freesias, scented agapanthus, night-scented gladioli, the wild honeysuckle tree, sweet salvias, jasmine and the lemon-scented pelargonium. Then there are those plants which release a strong aroma when touched. Pelargoniums (Geraniums) are best known for this. Favourites are the rose, nutmeg and peppermint scented.

Indigenous plants can be used to create impenetrable barriers and block out sound, making your garden a haven of security and tranquility.

Kei Apple

Kei Apple - ideal as a hedge due to its density

 The virtually impenetrable thorns of the Kei Apple

An old favourite is the Kei apple, which can be trained very easily into a hedge plant. The lemon thorn is also an attractive intruder deterrent. Other types include the forest num-num, buffalo thorn, the common turkey berry, spiny gardenia, false forest spike thorn and prickly asparagus thorns.

Indigenous plants also make very effective windbreaks. It is a good idea to leave hedges in coastal gardens untrimmed and a bit wild so they act as wind breaks.

The garden in 2012 with the trees now well-established

Plant shrubs closer together so they can protect each other. The tick berry is ideal with its yellow, daisy flowered bush. It is quick growing and loved by birds for the fruits and by butterflies as a larval host plant. Try Honeysuckle and Plumbago (forget-me-not), both of which can be trimmed or left to scramble.

 Bulbinella flower - attracts many insects and the leaves are useful for treating cuts and burns

 Celtis africana (White Stinkwood)  and the White Karee (Rhus viminalis, below) providing shade, shelter and food to many species of insects and wildlife

Weaver's nest in one of the White Karee's (Rhus viminalis)

Nest of the House Sparrow in one of the Acacia's taking advantage of the safety of the thorns- they will use the same nest year after year, just adding fresh leaves, as can be seen here. These little brown jobbies are renowned for their messy-looking nests!

So, if you would love to have lots of wildlife in your garden, then going indigenous is for you. I'm not saying that, if you are into neat borders, lots of colour and exotic plants and you hate leaves littering your lawn or garden beds, you won't have lots of wildlife in your garden - animals and insects are amazingly adaptive and resilient and make the most of whatever is on offer. The most important point is just that we carry on gardening and provide refuge and food for all the little creatures we share this planet with.

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