Indoor plants
Plants I love

How not to kill an indoor plant

The Queensland Garden Expo, which is held each July in Nambour, features the usual mouth-watering plant stalls and a busy programme of expert talks. I planned ahead and made sure I was in the right place at the right time to catch fern grower Peter Heaton give his tips for looking after ferns and other indoor plants. The room was packed, and when pushed most of us confessed to being serial killers of indoor plants.

When the victim is an indoor plant, the number one cause of death is too much water. The number two cause of death is not enough water. The twin perils of under and over-watering force many indoor plant lovers toward plants that can safely be watered about as often as baristas get a beard trim– sanseveria (mother-in-law’s tongue), bromeliads, aspidistra. As lovely and tolerant of neglect as these plants are, they look even better when lovingly tended, and when accompanied by other less hardy plants.

Heaton was understanding. The difficulty with watering indoor plants, he explained, is that there are too many variables. How much water a plant needs depends on its size; the size of the pot it’s in; the composition of the potting mix; the airflow; the temperature and the humidity.

Because that’s an algorithm worthy of Fermat, Heaton recommends putting plants in pots on a saucer. Water from the top of the pot til there is water in the saucer and don’t water again until the saucer is dry. The plant roots will take up water from the saucer as needed. If it takes more than a week for the saucer to dry out, it’s too big for the size of the pot, and root rot is a risk. Scale back the saucer.

Fill the saucer with dark gravel. This disguises the weak tea colour of water leached through the potting mix. Evaporation from the pebble-filled saucer will supply all the humidity needed to keep plants happy, including ferns. Misting is not just unnecessary, says Heaton, but a bad idea, as damp foliage is a good environment for the growth of fungus.

So that’s the watering sorted. The other issue is feeding. Heaton says we are mistaken in thinking of our potted plants as mini gardens. Better to consider them hydroponic systems, with the pot there just to hold them up. Which means you need to not only water but to feed. Heaton advocates a not-much-often regime. Add fertiliser to the watering can every time you water, at one-quarter strength of the recommended rate, alternating an all-purpose soluble food such as Thrive or Aquasol with a seaweed solution like Seasol.

Every year refresh the potting mix by taking the plant out of its pot, composting the old mix and repotting into fresh, high-quality mix, with a sprinkle of slow-release fertiliser at the bottom of the root ball and just under the surface of the mix. Add an occasional spray with the hose outdoors to rinse off dust for a total care regime that Heaton promises results in stress-free, thriving indoor plants.

In season

July 28

In now: The cold snap has brought out the truffle hunters. Buy to eat, as these gems lose flavour fast. If you must store them, wrap in absorbent paper in a closed container in the crisper, or nestle them in a closed container of Arborio rice or eggs. Both will benefit from the truffle’s rich aroma.

Look for: Seville oranges are only briefly available. Marmaladers should be on high alert.

Best buy: Harris Farm Markets is selling truffle ‘seconds’, those that aren’t whole and round, at prices that encourage experiments.

In the vegie patch: Plant bee-attracting flowers to increase pollination in spring.

What else:

  • sundowners are the last-picked apple of the season, and were harvested in May. They have just hit the shops.
  • Queensland strawberries are at their peak. There are a few different varieties sold, irritatingly always unnamed. My favourite is the big, shiny, red-all-the-way-through Camerosa. Grower Kerrie McMartin told me when I visited McMartin’s Strawberry Farm with a lucky tour group last week that red wine drinkers always prefer the ‘cammies’. Sprung!
  • you should be abel to find a bargain on roma tomatoes.
  • colour and flavour is improving in the blood oranges
Plants I love

Love a tree

It’s time to think about trees because tomorrow, July 26, is National Tree Day. There are all kinds of tree-planting activities you can get involved in, but the best is to plant a tree at home. There’s no need to turn the page just because you garden on a balcony, in a courtyard or on a suburban block already given over to swimming pool, trampoline and outdoor kitchen. My suggestions here are edible trees, some of them small and some perfectly content in a pot.

Olives in James Basson Chelsea garden

James Basson included a little grove of olives in his garden for l’Occitane at Chelsea this year.

Good evergreen options on the small and edible menu include citrus and olives. The olives won’t need much assistance once established, though harvests are greater if they are regularly fed and watered, and annually pruned. They can be grown in the ground or in pots, but make sure it’s a big pot. Citrus are a bit more demanding. They want regular food and water and an eye out for pests. They are perfectly happy in pots if bought as plants grafted on to dwarf Flying Dragon rootstock, but if you have the space, what about a grove?

Potted lemons, Villa Gamberaia

The potted lemons at Villa Gamberaia outside Florence.

Where a deciduous tree is a better choice, consider figs, which respond well to hard pruning. Like lemons, figs are good subjects for espaliering against a wall if space is at a premium. You could celebrate Sydney’s horti-history with a Granny Smith apple. Granny Smith herself lived in Eastwood, where she cut corners on composting by simply throwing the cores of the French crabapples she was cooking out the kitchen window. Out of that fragrant mulch grew the apple subsequently named after her. Her namesake, like other apples, do best in Sydney’s cooler areas.


Persimmon, which are best grown in-ground, offer glowing autumn fruit and brilliant foliage. There are two types, the original astringent ones, whose fruit must be really soft to be edible; and the ‘fuyu’ or sweet persimmons, which can be eaten crisp or soft. The fruit will be especially tasty in areas that get some frost, as flavour in persimmons builds in response to the difference between day and night-time temperatures. (The same is true of blood oranges, which build the best colour in conditions with warm sunny days and cold frosty nights.)

White mulberry

With a bit more space you could grow a mulberry. Choose a white one if there is paving or washing nearby that might be stained by falling fruit. If you have plenty of room a macadamia is a beautiful tree. They can get to 20m in the rainforests of northern NSW and southern Queensland that are their home, but are much smaller in cultivation. Make sure of it by choosing a dwarf variety, grafted for faster fruit. There are lovely sprays of pink or white flowers in spring, followed by the nuts.

Tree canopy

If you can’t celebrate National Tree Day by planting a tree, mark the day by admiring them. Even better, get your loved ones to stare up at the canopy of large trees with you. The researchers who study these things have shown that looking up at trees offers an altruism bonus. The awe inspired by trees, they say, makes us less egocentric and more empathetic.

In season

July 21

In now: It’s time to taste the tropics as fruit season peaks in the tropical north. Carambola has a mild sweet flavour. Slice it horizontally to see why it’s also called star fruit.

At its best: Parsnip is said to become sweeter after frosts. Test the theory by cooking some now. Peel only if necessary and make a judgement call about the core.

Best buy: Brussels sprouts store well in loose plastic in the crisper.

In the vegie patch: Order tomato seed from online suppliers, sow into jiffy pots and germinate on a warm windowsill to plant out in September.

What else:

  • white and red cabbage are both sweet and good
  • buerre bosc pears have a creamy texture and lightly fragrant flavour
  • there is plenty of horseradish around to spice up a steak
  • the blood oranges are coming good
Other people's gardens

Change in the Gardens

Jimmy Turner, the man who has been responsible for horticulture at the Sydney Botanic Garden for the past 18 months speaks in a Texan accent on fast forward. You can’t catch all the jokes, but you can’t miss the passion. The speed of Turner’s delivery is matched by the speed with which he has tackled change in the gardens.

“This is a 200 year–old garden,” he says. “It needed a bit of a nip and tuck and a face lift.” The evidence of the surgery is right in front of us as we sit in the Gardens cafe. Fifteen palms that squeezed together to hem in the café have been moved. The bed is now silver, ruby and green alcanteras in eye-popping plenty. They make a great show, but from Turner’s point of view what’s just as important is that they are low enough to reveal the gardens rising toward Macquarie Street. “Open up the sight-lines, remove the over-planting, that’s all I’m doing,” he says, adding that he has been reading the journal of former RBG director Charles Moore who described just the same kind of work a century ago. “The job hasn’t changed at all!”

I’m not much of a fan of cosmetic surgery, but I’m loving what Turner has already managed in the Gardens. His approach hasn’t been without controversy. Some garden staff and some of the army of volunteers that drive fund-raising and other garden services, have been alarmed at the changes, but Turner is implacable. And he insists that if the gardens are imagined as a cake he hasn’t even taken out a slice, simply removed the birthday candles and re-piped the icing. In fact the birthday candles are going back on next year when the Gardens celebrates its bicentenary. By then Turner’s re-decorating will see new views towards the harbour and through the Gardens; a lotus pond cleaned of eels and featuring a display of lotus varieties; a sparkling Tank Stream by the café; fewer cliveas, and many more flowers.

RBG Choragic monument gardens

New plantings are noticeable already. For Anzac Day a Victorian bedding scheme was reinstituted on the Band Lawn with an Anzac Star marked out in alternathera. Around the Choragic Monument the island beds were planted in two colours to reference the regimental badges of the Anzac battalions in which Gardens staff fought in World War I. Soon the Anzac Star will be changed to celebrate the bicentenary of the Gardens.

Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney Anzac Star

The Pioneer Garden, which is on the site of the Garden Palace that burned down in 1882, has also been replanted in Victorian bedding style, with burgundy alcanteras punctuating ribbons of lobelia, primula and ageratum. It’s the sort of planting you hardly ever see any more. “I want a sign here that says don’t try this at home,” laughs Turner. “It’s intensive, high-input gardening, but people should be able to come to the Gardens and see the story of gardening.” Keeping in mind that the story of gardening today is small-scale, he also wants to institute some pots, planted up to thrill and inspire. As well as a home for history, culture, science, horticulture and aesthetics, Turner promises take-home inspiration for the home gardener. If you haven’t visited for a while, go and see the work in progress.

In season

July 14

In now: Jam-makers are collecting cumquats. Some should be saved to eat fresh, sliced into salads, or roasted with chicken pieces and fennel.

At its best: Passionfruit is in its winter peak. Look for bargains and stock up. Fruit will keep for a month in loose plastic in the crisper, or the pulp can be frozen. At a passionfruit lunch last week at The Butler, I learned two new ways to open a passionfruit.  Teach your kids the first way for lunch box treats: hold a fresh, unwrinkled passionfruit between your palms with the stem end pointing away from you. Press your palms together to crack the ‘shell’  and then the passionfruit can easily be broken in two. The other way is to cut the top off like an egg. You’ll lose less juice and pulp on the cutting board than simply cutting it in half. As a bonus, grower Tina McPherson pointed out to me, the passionfruit balances well on its bottom, and can be topped up with Cointreau for instant delicious dessert/cocktail.  While Tina’s entertaining tip appeals, my favourite from three courses of passionfruit goodness was chef James Privett’s take on a kingfish ceviche, with passionfruit pulp, thinly sliced jalapeno, a sprinkle of dukkah for crunch, a slurp of macadamia oil and fresh coriander leaves.

Best buy: Broccoli is the bargain of the week. Reduce waste by cooking the stem as well as the florets. Slice away the outer tough part of the stem, then cut the pale inner portion into into batons or slices. Steam or blanch and toss into a peppery beef stir fry.

In the vegie patch: Mid-winter is onion-planting time.

What else:

  • the new season mussels are my favourites – small and sweet and tender. They make an instant dinner. Fry a chopped shallot in butter.  Add some cider or white wine, and the mussels. Put the lid on and after a minute or so when they have opened, slop in a spoonful of creme fraiche and a handful of chopped parsley. Serve.
  • boxes of oranges are a bargain
  • kumera is a thrifty buy
  • celebrate the Queensland strawberry feast