Handy hints

Sunday, 09 November 2014

Dahlias thrive on tomato food

When I was a kid, a kind neighbour used to occasionally give us piles of what in those days were called 'women's magazines', full of recipes, knitting patterns, gardening advice and handy hints for all sorts of household problems, sent in by readers. For some reason, I particularly adored reading the handy hints page. The idea of someone sharing some homespun secret to removing beetroot stains from a white shag carpet, for example (this was the 1970s, after all), seemed incredibly generous to me. I think it was the idea of a whole body of arcane knowledge being handed on that I found compelling.

Sharing is one of the fundamentally appealing aspects of the whole gardening experience, I have found. Gardeners are amazingly generous people, and the fact that a cutting, quickly snapped from a shrub or perennial and handed to a friend, can grow into a whole new plant gives gardeners a means of expressing their generosity. So it is with gardening knowledge. Whilst we can learn a lot from books, magazines and websites, so much of what we understand about plants and gardening comes to us from our fellow gardeners - sometimes information passed onto them from other enthusiasts; at other times as a result of their own experimentations with their plants and gardens.

I always aim to write down every handy hint I receive from other gardeners in a notebook. Some of them I act on straightaway; in other cases, it may be years before I do anything about it. But each piece of advice adds to the growing body of understanding of how plants and gardens work for those of us who haven't studied horticulture professionally.

Citrus trees are attacked by the bronze orange bug at this time of year

Just in this past week, I have gleaned a variety of handy hints! At the moment, I am interested in organic methods of pest control, so I was fascinated to hear of people I know actually vacuuming those really horrid 'stink bugs' (bronze orange bugs) from their citrus trees with an old vacuum cleaner! These pests can cause serious damage to the young shoots and immature fruits of all citrus, and are most prolific in October and November. Another method I heard of is to knock them off the branches with a stick so they fall into a bucket of hot water. Goggles and long-sleeved clothing need to be worn during these activities, as the bugs squirt a caustic fluid when disturbed that can be dangerous, especially to the eyes. It is a good idea to get on top of the bugs at the first sign of them in their green nymph stage. Spraying with Eco-Oil regularly from winter onwards can provide control or pyrethrum can be used.

Begonia Sophie Cecile in the garden of Margaret Chedra in Sydney

Another interesting hint I learned this week was to feed Begonia plants with rose food for best blooming. It certainly seemed to be effective in the garden of the hint-giver, where Begonia flower profusely almost all year round. This same gardener had made me aware a few years ago of the value of growing Begonia in our Sydney gardens, as they do so well and flower for so long. Another tip I received recently was to feed Dahlia and Alstroemeria plants with a tomato food for lots of flowers. Yet another gardener, with a lush tropical garden, explained that she foliar-feeds her plants with a mix of Seasol and soluble fertiliser every fortnight. With all this good advice on fertilising, I realised guiltily that I don't feed my plants enough and that anything I give them has to be an improvement!

Hosta growing in a pot in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

In another garden I visited this week, I learned that Hosta are best grown in pots, as conditions for these shade- and moisture-loving plants can be better controlled when they are container-grown, and their sculptured leaves are shown off better too. From this gardener I had previously learned that Clematis plants need to be given at least one bucket of water a day and that the worthwhile Fuchsia hybrids for Sydney's climate are those that grow in full sun and are as tough as nails, flowering for months on end.

Cymbidium orchid in the garden of my sister Holly in Sydney

From my parents many years ago, I found out that making a using compost is the key to a good garden, by building up the organic matter in soil. From my sister, I discovered that the keys to getting Cymbidium orchids to bloom are plenty of sun from May to September and a regular feeding program with special orchid food. Other good tips I have garnered over the years include the use of a mixture of hydrated coir peat and perlite as a propagating medium for striking cuttings; the idea of dipping cuttings in honey so they strike better; that daylily foliage can be cut to the ground several times a year when it looks ratty or is infested with aphids and it will regrow fresh leaves; and that many bromeliads and orchids can be grown in trees. Throwing an old sheet over a Hydrangea can protect its blooms during a heatwave; a large upturned empty pot put over a newly transplanted specimen gives it some much-needed shelter if the move was done in the hotter months rather than at the right time in autumn or winter - I seem to be always doing this.

Gardening is a never-ending learning process, and our fellow gardeners are often our teachers of gardening lore as well as the providers of many of the best plants in our plots. I'd love to hear of your favourite gardening tip!