Winter distractions

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Basil seedlings can be started indoors now

During the month of July, I have been busy working out ways to distract myself from the tedium and discomforts of winter. Instead of brooding on the bareness and general dishevelment of my sad-looking garden, I have concentrated on things to engross and amuse me, in addition to the 15 points listed in my last blog.

My mini propagator

What I decided I was missing the most was signs of growth, as basically my garden is moribund at this time of year. This is as it should be, as the garden deserves to have its downtime, but I still craved the thrill of seeing active plant life. The solution I came up with was to plant some seeds indoors, using a very old electric 'mini propagator' I have, consisting of a heated base upon which sits a perspex box, into which punnets sown with seeds can be placed. In the colder months, this device really does accelerate seed germination (though is not necessary if you have somewhere warm to place your seed punnet, which should be enclosed in a plastic bag to retain heat and humidity), and the basil seeds I planted were up in only three days; the annual phlox following a few days later. The thrill of seeing those tiny green shoots was palpable, raising my spirits instantly. At this time of year, it is possible to start various warm-season herbs, vegies and annuals indoors, nurturing them on a well-lit windowsill until they are large enough to go outside, by which time the weather should have warmed up.

Microgreens are fun to grow indoors in winter

Another form of seed-raising to indulge in at this time of year is growing microgreens in the kitchen, to use as highly nutritional and flavoursome additions to salads or to garnish cooked meals. They are basically baby seedlings grown en masse and harvested when they have developed two to four true leaves. Many herbs and vegetable seeds can be used to grow microgreens, such as basil, beetroot, bok choi, kale, lettuce, sunflower, spinach and snow peas. It is important to use seeds that have not been pretreated with a fungicide, as traces of chemical residue may still be left on the young plants when they are consumed. There are seeds available to purchase specially for microgreen-growing, and seeds sold as being 'organic' should generally be OK. Various kits are available for growing microgreens, but it can be achieved in normal punnets using vermiculite or seed-raising mix.

A favourite coleus that I do not want to lose

As another avenue of seeing plant growth, I took lots of cuttings of my coleus plants. This was also as a safeguard against losing them in winter, because the very cold days we've experienced this month have ravaged the poor plants, and severe chill can kill them outright. I popped my cuttings into a vase of water on the kitchen windowsill (by now becoming rather crowded!), covered with a plastic bag, and I have enjoyed watching roots form on the stems in the vase as the coleus cuttings enjoy their snug position indoors. In a few weeks' time, they should be ready to be potted up in a propagating mix and can venture outdoors once the weather has warmed up. Coleus are wonderful foliage plants for shaded spots in Sydney gardens, and I would never want to be without their glowing colours.

Another diversion has been to plant up (temporarily) empty spots in the garden with hardy, fast-growing seedlings of herbs and vegies for quick crops to use in the kitchen during winter. As I have big clumps of Dahlia for summer blooms in my front garden, the area they inhabit is bare and boring at this time of year as they lie dormant below the soil, so I am popping advanced seedlings of rocket, coriander and pak choi into the vacant patches for an infusion of fresh greenery that is also edible! It also prevents the areas from being overtaken by weeds at this time of year. This simple tip was gleaned from the wonderful book Just Vegetating (2012) by British gardener Joy Larkcom about her life spent exploring vegetable-growing and introducing gardeners to many unusual vegetables and ways of growing them. She was one of the pioneers of the salad mesclun mixtures of baby leaves so widely available in green grocers and supermarkets today.

My new Cymbidium orchid from the garden of my sister Holly

Yet another enjoyment this winter has been to expand my collection of potted Cymbidium orchids to provide delight during the colder months with their exquisite, waxy blooms. Having learned that regular fertilising and sufficient sunlight from May until September are the keys to good blooming, I felt emboldened to add a few more of these orchids to my garden and was recently pleased to receive a lovely deep pink one from the garden of my sister Holly. The gorgeous flowers really do provide a wonderful distraction from the bleakness of my winter garden - and how I wished I'd got into orchids before now!

Chinoiserie garden, Mittagong, NSW, in late spring

Another entertainment I have indulged in has been planning gardens to visit in spring, including a few trips away further afield. There is a lot of fun to be had in the planning of such excursions, and there are plenty of possibilities as spring unfolds, with individual gardens open and garden festivals celebrating the season throughout the country. Pictured above is the beautiful garden of Chinoiserie in Mittagong, NSW, which I will be visiting with a friend in October. To get some ideas of where to go and what to see, visit the My Open Garden website.

As far as I am concerned, winter ends on 31 July and 'sprinter' (a term coined by Tim Entwhistle to cover the months of August and September in Sydney) begins on 1 August - so there isn't long to go!