Espaliered lemons
Plants I love

Lemons are not the only fruit

The lemon reigns supreme as Sydney’s quintessential backyard fruit tree, but upstart citrus are demanding a seat at our tables and a spot in the garden. Fingerlimes, for instance. Citrus australasica are native rainforest understorey plants that have been commercialised over the past decade or so. They are offered in arrange of colours, from barely there pinks and golds, to lime and ruby. Mark Engall, a third-generation citrus nurseryman, has experimented with different varieties to find those that fruit most consistently. His top picks are ‘Tasty Green’ and ‘Pink Ice’.

The lime-flavoured, caviar-like vesicles of fingerlimes are great with oysters, as is yuzu, a Japanese citrus, which adds unique flavour to lots of Japanease sauces and drinks. Yuzu fruit look like manky old lemons, but you need only pierce the skin with a fingernail to release their different and very distinctive aroma. The fabulous fragrance is put to use in Japan not just in food, but also in the bathtub. At Takefue, a beautiful hot spring resort in the mountains of Kyushu, I was given a bowl of fresh yuzu to lightly crush and float in my tub. The oil infusing the water and steam made for an invigorating soak.

Takefue ryokan

I foolishly didn’t take a picture of the yuzu, but you can see them floating in the bath here.

There are few commercial yuzu growers in Australia so fresh fruit is hard to find, making growing it all the more appealing. Calamansi is just as rare. This is the lime that makes the delicious cold drink sold at roadside stalls through Indonesia and the Philippines. Calamansi is here called a calamondin. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the fruit is orange in Sydney rather than the green of the tropics. Engall suspects the colour is an effect of the climate, perhaps related in some way to the phenomenon that turns ripe valenecia oranges green in high summer. Like others in the cumquat family, calamondin are perfectly suited to container culture.

For sheer oddity value, it’s hard to go past Buddah’s hand, Citrus medica ‘Fingered citron’. The golden-fingered fruit is all rind and pith, no flesh, but its fresh fragrance has scented rooms since the days of ancient Athens. It looks spectacular as part of a still life, and is delicious candied. In fact this and Citrus medica ‘Etrog’, also available at Engall’s Nursery in Dural, are the fruits that make the French candied peel called citron.

So by all means grow a lemon, and perhaps an orange, but consider expanding the orchard to include some of the rarer citrus family. The requirements are all the same – a sunny spot and a big pot or a well-prepared hole in the garden, dug to at least twice the size of the rootball, and improved with lots of organic matter. Mark Engall’s single tip for citrus success is soil preparation. The better the soil, he says, the better the growth and the more resistant to pests is the citrus, whichever one you’re growing.

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In season

April 14

In now: Jerusalem artichokes are so fresh and sweet they are great in salads, despite the pain of peeling. Plant breeders are aiming for a less knobbly, easier-to-peel version. Until then don’t bother peeling them if you are roasting or steaming but do scrub them well.

At its best: Goodbye to the wrinkly old imported lemons and hello to fresh lemon zest brightening everything from braises to salads.

Best busy: Chestnuts are everywhere, including on the ground if you want to go collecting at Mount Tomah and Mount Victoria.

In the vegie patch: Take cuttings of rosemary to make a hedge or share with friends. This is a particularly nice gesture if you happen to have a very tasty rosemary with strong straight stems good for turning into lamb skewers. Share the wealth! Strip the bottom leaves and insert  pen-length cuttings into  propagating or potting mix. Make a hole with your finger first to avoid damaging the cut end of the stem.

What else:

  • make a plan to visit Glenmore House for its open day on May 2 and 3. Mickey Robertson’s kitchen garden and orchard will inspire you to grow and cook all sorts of goodies. And there will be food and plants for sale.
  • cheap figs are on their way out, so enjoy the last hurrah
  • don’t bother with blueberries at the moment. The Tasmanian harvest is finished and the mid-north coast NSW harvest won’t start until spring. The current berries are coming out of cold storage and quickly turn mushy.
  • the pink-blushed young ginger roots around now make a great mild pickled ginger.
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Other people's gardens

Into the fire

It’s fire season in the garden. In the summer it’s too hot to sit out by a fire; in the winter it’s too cold for most of us easily-chilled Sydneysiders, but autumn and spring are just right for evenings with friends around the fire. “Suddenly, everyone wants to talk about fires,” says garden maker Michael Bates. And it’s not just the weather; fire bowls are suddenly the must-have item of a well-finished garden. Bates says the draw is both practical and aesthetic. “The warmth of a fire extends the season you can be in the garden with friends on a Saturday night; plus the moving flame adds life to the garden in the same way that moving water, or birds splashing around in a bird bath or kids and dogs running round, do. It’s beautiful and its hypnotic.”

There are many options for wood-burning outdoor fires: sunken pits; stone-edged circular fireplaces; terracotta saucers and, Bates’ choice, simple cast iron bowls.

Bates at home with fire. Pic: Jason Busch

Bates at home with fire. Pic: Jason Busch

The usual suspects – big box hardware stores, Ebay and Gumtree – have lots of affordable, if not always stylish, choices. (Robert Plumb has style, and the best pun, with the Angelina or a Brad fire pits.)

When it comes to siting the fire, Bates says you want to make sure it can be seen from the house. The movement of the flames and the glow of the embers is a show you don’t want to pass up just because dinner is ready. Make it snug and cosy too, with a backdrop so that people don’t feel they have their backs exposed to the elements. Seating around the fire needs to flexible enough to provide a bit of distance when the fire is at its hottest, but enable snuggling closer as it dies down. Bates favours curved stone wall seating so that you can sit as close or as far away as needed. “Late at night we might be on the ground close to the fire and leaning against the walls,” he says of the fire pit in his North Sydney garden.

On a practical note, make sure the wood supply is close to the fire, or you’ll think twice about lighting it. The other practical issue to consider is food. For many of us, glowing coals are an invitation to cook. But as anyone who has cleaned out the carbonised fat caught in the fat catcher at the bottom of the barbecue knows, cooking makes a mess. There are exceptions – toasted bread, grilled vegetables – but if you cook meat there will be cleaning. Or not. When I asked Bates about the grime caused by cooking over his fire pit, he laughed, “Mate, you’re asking the wrong person, I don’t see that kind of stuff. Too busy living.”

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Other people's gardens

Fixing the front garden

So much garden design is problem solving. I was reminded of this when Inside Out magazine asked me to write a story about Sydney garden designer Peter Fudge’s front garden. There were no details in the brief from the editor so I was expecting a garden that set the house off nicely and provided a clear and welcoming entrance. The twin ambitions of the front garden.  But when I arrived I realised that Peter had had a bigger problem to deal with. The house is sited on a slope and a garage (that luxury of Sydney living!) had been snuck into the front, so that the flat roof sat just under the front bedroom window. The garage monstered the front garden, cramped the space and offered a charmless view from the bedroom. The afternoon summer sun richocheting off the metal would have been blinding.

Peter’s challenge was to incorporate the garage roof into a visually cohesive, two-tiered garden that provided an outlook from the bedroom, as well as setting off the house and offering that welcoming entrance. He started with a uniform flooring of pea gravel, broken up with islands of low planting.

Peter Fudge garden

This view shows the top of the garage roof, covered with dichondra silver falls growing over the gravel, and with islands of kalanchoe and rosemary. The awning hook and hose are real life details! Not too distracting I hope.

The existing garden had one tree worth keeping, a crepe myrtle. Peter added another three white-flowering crepe myrtles to give a sense of a grove, and to provide some seasonal change to a planting palette of hardy, sun and drought-tolerant plants including kalanchoe, crassula, dichondra, westringia and rosemary. Staggered bluestone steps lead through the gravel and plants to the front porch.

Garden by Peter Fudge

The view from the street, through the ‘invisible’ fencing of stainless steel wires anchored to hardwood posts, with the raised garage roof garden on the right.

Peter is a collector of pots and of succulents, and the collection, some of which has travelled over at least four house moves and several decades, is massed on the front porch. He doesn’t like it to look too styled and designed, so pots are in a range of materials and colours, pulled together by the bulk of the succulents they house.

Garden by Peter Fudge

The grey paint palette echoes the silvers chosen in the plantings, in the existing tiles, and in great bleached wood Adirondack chair, in which Peter likes sit and mull on what to do next.

Peter Fudge garden

More real life – Peter’s son’s cricket kit ready to go. I do love that chair. Peter’s supplier no longer does this raw version, and I’ve only seen painted options for sale recently. Anyone know where you can get them unpainted?

I didn’t turn up expecting to take pictures, so these are just snaps with my phone. For better pictures and the full story, have a look at April Inside Out.

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In season

April 7

In now: Quinces are finally ripe and fragrant and ready to bake or braise, until either pale coppery pink or deep rich burgundy red.

At its best: The Australian harvest of pomegranates is underway and the fruit is brilliantly coloured and juicy. Use the arils atop salads, braises, and grain dishes; or juice and add a dash of sugar syrup and soda – or sparkling wine. My current favourite salad involves grated carrot, home-made pickled Spanish onion, chopped rocket, pepitas, currants and pomegranate. It’s so good its almost dessert.

Best buy: Beurre bosc pears have a complex fragrance and flavour, and are in peak condition now.

In the vegie patch: Feed rhubarb with liquid fruit and flower fertiliser to keep it going strong.
What else:

  • the crimson seedless grapes are great
  • the local harvest of lemons has started so they are affordable again and there’s no need to buy the imported ones
  • strawberries are not much good now until the winter season starts in Queensland
  • treat yourself to a mangosteen

 

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Gardens

A myna problem

While we all want birds in our garden, some are more welcome than others, and the least welcome of all are the common mynas, (which we also call Indian mynas, to distinguish them from the even more raucous and aggressive native miner). We loathe mynas in direct proportion to just how much they love our urban lifestyle. Like ibis and pigeons they are wonderfully suited to city life and will brazenly hop onto the kitchen bench to sample whatever’s for dinner. Relatives of starlings, they were introduced to Australia by homesick colonists who fancied they were songbirds. You laugh, but the mistakes continued: they were taken from Melbourne to Queensland to eat pests in the cane fields, a strategy that also gave us the cane toad.

Dr Richard Major, a research scientist at the Australian museum who has studied the spread of the myna, says that until the 1950s they were confined to Melbourne, Sydney, Toowoomba and the cane fields, but as urbanisation increased so too did the mynas.

There is a belief among gardeners that mynas push out the more desirable small birds like fairy wrens. But according to Dr Major, while native miners are highly aggressive and will hunt smaller birds from their territories, mynas move in and small birds move out simply because of the design choices we make in our outdoor spaces. Mynas love date palms and pencil pines, manicured lawns and paved surfaces. Add a bowl of pet food and it’s a five-star myna resort.

Encouraging mynas to move on demands cleaning up the smorgasbord – remove the pet food, keep myna foodstuffs off the paving and plant out some of the lawn to tufty grasses and shrubby plants (which as a bonus provide shelter for small birds.)

There are more assertive approaches of course, for which Canberra is the pioneer. In 2006, mynas were third on the list of avian sightings in the national capital, but since then more than 50,000 mynas have been trapped and euthanized and they are now twentieth on the same list. Crimson rosellas seem to be the main beneficiaries of the tree nesting sites the disappeared mynas left free.

Some Sydney councils follow the capital’s lead and provide myna traps to residents. The approach is not widespread however as controversy continues about the role of the myna in displacing other birds. One study of nests in Sydney found no mynas in trees. At the moment, says Dr Major, “they’d rather nest in a roof than a tree, but given their numbers, I’d hate them to switch over. We have to keep an eye on them.”

Dr Major’s new research project looks at the genetic potential of the birds to be exploratory and invasive in the bush. He is comparing innercity Sydney birds with birds on the rural fringe to find out whether cities are providing the individual birds that become myna bush pioneers. Residents of Glebe, Darlinghurst or Surry Hills who’d like to help out by trapping birds in their gardens should email Dr Major: richard.major@autmus.gov.au.

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