Friday, 21 January 2022

A year in review: Garden, part two

This memorial contains almost a month’s worth of parts – though not all of ‘em are about my garden! – and the post you’re reading is the twenty-eighth in the series. 

On the final day of October I went with Omer and Ming to Sylvania Waters to pick up three large pots found on Facebook Marketplace. The woman selling them was waiting at the end of a cul-de-sac in a white ute. Omer and I put $99 worth of pots upside down in the back of the RAV4 and drove back north, stopping at Wolli Creek to drop Ming off at her house. While there Omer and I visited a building on Gertrude Street to meet a man who took us down into the garage of his building where he had two pots for sale. He agreed to take $40 each for them – though together they’d been advertised at $90 – when I asked if he’d be willing to lower the price. Omer and I carried the heavy things, which came with ceramic stands, heading up in the lift to the street where I put mine down and went back to get the car from where I’d parked it in another street. Back at my place we put the pots in the garage next to the ones bought earlier in the day.

On 3 November I found someone in Abbotsford selling 12 ceramic stands for $20 so agreed to come out on the ferry the next day to collect them. Early on the morning of 4 November I read through a comment on Facebook left by Anthony Crellin, who I’d gone to school with 45 years before, and because his answer to my question was long I did so carefully. He suggested that different plants like different soil types and different pot sizes, so I did some research with Google then bought two books on Amazon: ‘Simple Container Gardening: Growing Vegetables and Herbs in Small Spaces’ by Arianne LeBeau and ‘Costa's World: Gardening for the soil, the soul and the suburbs’ by Costa Georgiadis. I’d met this local celebrity a decade before at an Armidale conference I’d attended with mum (getting there from southeast Queensland in the Aurion) when driving on country roads was still an option for me (see ‘Health and wellbeing’ part of this memorial). One book is specially for pot plants and I hoped it would answer some of the many questions I had, for example I’d posted on Facebook:

I put up a photo recently showing new Fb Mktplace pot purchases, so want some advice abt how to go about filling 'em. I see a lot of free soil on Fb Mktplace and wondered if it's possible to get some of this and mix it with potting mix, or if I shd just use all potting mix. Do you layer what you put in pots? What about drainage (one guy said to put a piece of flyscreen in the bottom to stop soil leaking out of the pot). All advice welcome. My grandfather was a gardener and dad had a large garden but with this house I'm confronting the miracle and mystery of gardening for the first time in my adult life.

The woman selling the pot stands drove over to meet me in her little grey car. I’d asked her to come to the ferry wharf because I had a big bag of books I was selling further up the river and I didn’t want to traipse around Abbotsford getting tired and miserable in the rain. Once I’d dropped off the books in Parramatta my rucksack was much lighter as the pot stands aren’t heavy and I dropped the little singlet bag containing them into one of the pots once I was back in the garage at home. 

The next day it also rained with the weather forecast saying it’d do so for another week. A negative Indian Ocean Dipole was delivering on its promise and while it rained the next day early in the morning, when I went to Camperdown in the car to pick up another ceramic pot it was just cloudy. The woman who was selling at this place told me before I left home that she’d be at home at about 12pm and I arrived ten minutes early. She then messaged saying she’d be 10 minutes late so I hung around outside her building until I saw a silver SUV entering the garage. I messaged a question about exactly how long she’d be delayed and then she got back to me with a short message that just contained the unit number, so I rang at the front door. On level six she was waiting with her door open and I paid her with the banknotes I’d prepared while telling her how happy I was to get the pot, went down in the lift, and returned to the car. At home I put the pot in the garage with the rest of them.

I read ‘Costa’s World’, finishing on 13 November. At over 200 pages it’s quite bulky though because the text is set in columns that are about the width of a newspaper column it’s easy to read and there’re lots of pictures breaking up the text. Instead of doing the obvious and giving advice straight off the bat – about what to grow where – Costa starts by outlining such fundamental issues as how to embrace regenerative farming, how to cater for pollinators, and – something impossible for me due to the size of my garden – how to keep chickens! 

Costa’s idea of a garden is broad and his plans involve baseline ideas about what a garden should be, not just how to plant and whether a particular species likes full sun or not. If you want to grow natives, indigenous plants, or endemic plants, then you’ll find a certain amount of guidance in Costa’s book but I missed reading information about soil types. I specifically wanted this because, having bought so many pots, I was now ready to start planning further purchases: in this case bags of potting mix from Bunnings. Before venturing out however I wanted to know what type of potting mix I should buy. I’d already got information from social media that using – free – soil available via Facebook Marketplace wouldn’t (according to some people) suit my needs, but because gardening is such a big subject – Costa’s intense focus on basics being only part of a bigger puzzle – I assumed that there’d be a range of soil types available on the retailer’s shelves. I also wanted to know if I should put potting mix right down to the bottom of each pot or if the bottoms of the pots should be filled with a different type of material. 

Costa did give me some ideas about what plants to buy, at one point I thought that a fig tree might do well on the deck next to the pool. Herbs and flowers could go out front on the path where I planned to situate pots, but first things first: I needed a medium in which to house growing organisms. One person who’d commented on a Facebook post had warned me about choosing potting mix but by the time I got to the end of Costa’s book I was none the wiser. This is all the more surprising as he’d given a lot of information about fertilisers and other additives when, in 2010, I watched the TV host demonstrate in a New England park how to make a plot out of straw. 

Hoping to get more detailed advice I opened a second book I’d bought from Amazon, ‘Simple Container Gardening’ by Arianne Lebeau, but it turned out to be completely useless as it’s exclusively for a northern-hemisphere (and, more particularly, an American) audience. It did say to put closed water bottles in the bottoms of pots but all measurements are in empirical notation and south-facing in her case means full sun! Disappointed with Amazon on account of being allowed to buy such an unsuitable book, I resolved to be more careful in future and planned a tip out to Gleebooks where I might be able to find local offerings. 

Lebeau learned by trial and error how to garden in containers, and it looked like I was going to have to do the same. 

On 15 November I was at Redfern to drop off some books with a buyer who’d said she’d take ‘em if I toted ‘em to her workplace and while in the area I walked through Chippendale to Glebe in order to visit the bookshop, where I found three local gardening books which I bought for $110. The next day someone responded to my Nextdoor post about ‘Costa’s World’ – in which I’d lamented the difficulty of finding local books about gardening (the bookseller in Gleebooks’d commented that the Australian market is very small, and this was the reason, in his opinion) – telling me about a gardening book by Indira Naidoo. It was in fact two people directing me, one mentioning how it’d been a Special Broadcasting Corporation host who’d written the book and another who just said, “Indira”. Putting one and two together in the evening I went online at the AbeBooks website and found a copy in Britain that I proceeded to order. A few days later a friend remarked that I should subscribe to an Australian gardening page on Facebook, so I did. I’d told her that I’m almost entirely text-oriented and so need specific instructions, and this was her solution to the impasse I found myself in having made purchases of hardware but without the certain knowledge I would need to successfully grow things. 

When I left a post several people replied with advice, including to check the Gardening Australia website for articles about potting mix. I asked for more specific instructions, or links to individual articles, but none were forthcoming (“there is a whole segment on potting mixes,” said Barbara, “Search on the site”, while Gail said “they have great all round advice”) so despite the goodwill shown by some individuals I assumed that a bit of trial and error’d be required in order to achieve my aims.  Some of the advice was contradictory. For example, Jan told me that potting mix isn’t necessary:
with some very large pots I have used broken up polystyrene to fill out the lower part of the pot, then covered it with shade cloth or weed mat and put the soil on top of that. It means the pots are lighter, so easier to move, and it means you use less soil. It also gives very good drainage. You don't have to only use potting mix. commercial potting mixes are only recent innovations and growing plants in pots goes back centuries. You can make your own mixes, and would generally aim at good drainage, as well as incorporating sufficient nutrients. compost, sand, charcoal, ordinary soil – all can be mixed appropriately to make a good potting mix.
This advice was mirrored by Lisa:
With my raised beds I did a lasagne garden method and layered all sorts of different matter, garden waste, lawn clippings, cardboard etc and topped up the top half with good soil, you can do similar with large pots
But Gail said that choice of potting mix is “very important”:
For big pots get a terracotta and planter mix that has water crystals and slow release fertilizer. It needs to be free draining but not with so much bark or vegetable matter that it becomes hydrophobic. There is no need to put crocks or charcoal in the bottom with commercial potting mix. For short term small pots a regular potting mix is ok.
Tony authoritatively and helpfully added a good deal of additional information in his considered reply:
Here is what i use to grow pretty much all my fruit and veggies with excellent results.
I start with cheap tomato and veg potting mix from Bunnings, I use a 50/50 mix of that and my compost but you can do this with just the potting mix. Add into that a handful of dynamic lifter pellets, a handful of blood and bone, a handful of sulphate of potash, a teaspoon of Epsom salts, half a teaspoon of trace elements, half a handful of garden lime. I would add a teaspoon of water crystals as well if using pots.
Mix all of that through the soil before filling pots,
This will give the soil and plants enough of a wide variety of nutrients to grow very well for a couple of years with just regular water, no need to fertilise.
Pro tip... rain water is a crapload better for plants than town water.
Lizzy even wanted me to spray paint the pots to make them all the same colour!
Just a tip. With different coloured pots it can look a bit mismatched so I bought spray paint in cans from Bunnings and sprayed mine all the same colour. With the bigger pots if you’ve got any polystyrene you can pop that in the lower section of the larger pots. I’ve also crushed up cardboard in the bottom of some as well.

Tony’s comment came on 21 November, though the day before I’d promised myself to go to Bunnings to buy potting mix. Friends had to go there for something else so I took them in the car but once inside the store the crowds of people were too thick and the number of staff too low for me to bother delaying leaving and I went home with nothing purchased. The traffic arriving had been horrendous, though on the way home it was quicker and I took a route along the narrow street past Mascot Station (I sometimes take the longer route that bypasses the busy street outside it) with my heart obeying the dictates of my will instead of something else. 

Joe’s gardener did some work on the terraces, including clipping the nature strip, and I paid a total of $15 (on 2 December and 6 December) as my part toward the cost of keeping the complex tidy. Joe had to message residents twice in order to get people to fork out. I’d gone outside on the Friday and clipped my own lawn, using the hedge clippers also to edge it where it comes up next to the pavement. Joe took his own clippers to the hedge – and I wasn’t convinced after he’d finished that it was a good idea to pare it down so low, but I decided not to say anything and to let him have his way since he was doing the work himself and there was no charge attached to it – and when he’d finished I saw that it was level with the fence. 

The dragon trees out the back started to droop (see pic above). I asked the Facebook group Australian Garden Enthusiasts for help, posting this photo with some words, and someone asked me if the pot had drainage holes in it. If so, Pat said, I should remove the water. “Otherwise move to sheltered spot away from rain for a while. That’s what I would do.” The pots are so big and heavy and they’re filled right to the bottom with soil so it’s hard to tip them up to look underneath, and moving them without emptying them is virtually impossible. 

I went to Messenger and sent a question to the guy who’d bought my dragon trees in March (I hadn’t had word from him since the 17th of that month) and Cooper responded saying, “Yes they do have drainage, you can cut the leaves.” He also asked to see a photo, then he said, “Yeah they look a bit water logged but that’s okay they will still survive.” I resolved to wait until the weather turned and hoped the leaves would run straight again without any intervention on my part. 

On 10 December – a day of fierce rain when I was out having lunch with a friend – I picked up Indira Naidoo’s ‘The Edible Balcony’ from my PO box. In it in addition to tips on growing veges there are, oddly, recipes for food. I ignored the recipes and enjoyed reading the parts about gardening and around the same time I also started to read two books bought at Gleebooks, including one about how to grow veges from kitchen waste. 

Around the middle of November therefore I bought five gardening books but I still hadn’t, seven weeks later when I spoke about the garden with my friend Basia (she advised going to a municipal library to ask for help), visited Bunnings to buy potting mix. My ignorance was a block I had to grope my way past but finding the will to enable me to make the move was, in the event, turning out to be more than a little problematic. Unlike the rain, motivation was in short supply and I made a mental note to try again in the new year.

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