It’s September and here in Ipswich – west, but not too far west – of Brisbane, Australia – you can practically hear things growing. Winter retreated some weeks ago after a half-hearted assault and, to all intents and purposes, spring has been with us for some time already, long before its official start date on the first of the month.
Regular viewers will know that I’m a city girl and a stranger to the traditional Aussie backyard. I’m also these days the custodian of a quarter acre block laid out as a sub-tropical paradise. Join me for my Adventures in Gardening, an occasional series in which I figure out how to keep it that way.
Trees and shrubs
There were 57 trees on our block at last official count. A couple of them went for health and safety reasons and we’ve put in a few new ones, including a lemon and a lime which both look sickly but I’m assured they’ll settle in, given time.
One of the most interesting trees took a while to identify but I decided pretty quickly that I loved it. The tree sits at the outer edge of the lawn between the house and the landscaped sub-tropical pool area (I know. My life, eh?) and it is also a favourite of some stunning beetles.
If I was a Victorian Lady Gardener I’m sure I’d be wearing them as earrings and brooches but, being thoroughly modern, I settled for a photograph and a Google image search.
They are, appropriately, called Jewel bugs, or Harlequin beetles and, according to the Queensland Museum, there are 25 Australian species in the Scutelleridae family.
They are also known as Hibiscus bugs, which gave us the first inkling of what kind of tree we might be dealing with. Your Girl Reporter loves hibiscus and was looking forward to finally seeing some blooms.
While I was waiting impatiently for the first flowers to appear the bugs kept me amused. One laid her eggs conveniently at my eye level and then guarded them day in, day out, until I managed to get a decent photograph of her.
When at last the buds appeared there was grim news from the Google Gardening Almanac. The tree is a Norfolk Island hibiscus (Lagunaria patersonia). Its flowers are pink and much smaller than the showy tropical blooms which frankly I was expecting.
It gets worse. The flowers – which are undeniably charming – are followed by large pods filled with tiny fibreglass-like fibres which are so irritating the tree is commonly known as the itchy tree and, even more insultingly to Your Girl Reporter, the cow itch tree. Yes, taking it personally.
Having said that, I didn’t notice any particular problems in year one, although I have not to date frolicked barefoot and buck naked on the lawn either. Once again I have been dealt a lesson in not giving my heart away too freely.
In happier hibiscus news, the neighbours have a magnificent specimen, with the classic big red flowers, down the back of their yard. Back in January I liberated a few cuttings which had strayed over the fence. All is fair in love and gardening.
I jammed them into a pot and, of the three I took, two withered and died while one survived and thrived. Look at it now. It currently lives in the shady Lady Garden where it seems to enjoy the moist conditions and low lighting once the morning sun has moved over the house.
Nevertheless, I’m thinking of moving it into the sub-tropical paradise where it can enjoy more sunshine and might be more inclined to flower. First, I’ll take a cutting which I’ll grow in just the same way, in just the same conditions.
My cutting taking is an extremely hit and miss affair – no matter how many guides I watch or read, nor how many times I do it. I didn’t have any hormone rooting powder when I took the hibiscus cuttings, so they got minimal help from me.
Since then I’ve heard that strike rates can be improved by dipping cuttings in a bit of honey and I’m looking forward to giving that a go. It feels like the sort of thing my Nana would have done.
The back garden begins with a rough square of sorry-looking lawn surrounded on three sides by beds containing trees and large shrubs and very little ground cover. On one side of the back steps is a square raised bed where we’ve been growing rocket, lettuces and other salad vegetables.
One of our biggest jobs over winter was the installation of another raised bed on the other side of the back steps, under the kitchen window. The current Mr Baxter did the heavy lifting while Your Lady Gardener adjusted her petticoats and examined packets of seed.
In terms of what we’ve planted, I read a lot of material about how to plan your various beds and do a simple crop rotation, keeping ‘families’ of vegetables together and planting in a succession which takes account of differing nutritional requirements and minimises diseases.
Then we just went nuts and planted any and everything we fancied. We have beans and peas, broccoli, bak choi, tomatoes, basil, oregano, carrots – it goes on and on and they’re all in a muddle. I’m sure there will be consequences. And hopefully a few vegetables.
One thing that has crystallised over the winter is my intention for each section of the garden so I’m heading into the busy part of the year with a clear picture of what I’m trying to achieve.
The rough square of the back yard will get regular watering from me so I’m filling it with fruits, vegetables and flowers.
Then there’s the paradise – the structure’s all there, with all those palm trees and shrubs but I’m putting in ground covers, with bromeliads and other plants which require low water and which can basically just spread of their own accord.
Finally, beyond the pool, is the wilderness. This is the realm of the Moreton Bay fig. We are just visitors to this part of the garden. It’s enough to stand in awe among the fig’s aerial roots in its huge dappled shade and be reminded that we are not the owners of these trees.
We are custodians and only for a little while at that.
© Sally Baxter 2016