Garden specialist

A botanical metaphor seems apt to describe Australia’s specialist garden bookseller. Let’s go with a waratah. Like the striking flower, Gil Teague’s Florilegium is a highly specialised survivor in difficult conditions. Waratahs survive drought and bushfire, and independent booksellers certainly feel they’ve been through both in recent years. Now though, Teague feels that garden books have seen off the threat of the e-book.

“Readers have realised that the experience of reading is different with a book versus a screen,” he says. “For non-fiction, books are easier – easier to flick backwards and forwards, and to check the index.” And it’s not just practicalities that favour the physical book. “A book has a more personal quality. Imagination comes into play. You spin off into your thoughts, and then come back to the author so that the quality of communication between the author and reader is different,” he insists.

Teague started Florilegium in 1989. The fun had leached out of his job as editorial director at McGraw-Hill when he came across an ad in The British Bookseller for Hortus. Hortus is a publishing throwback; a paperback-sized quarterly published on quality stock with no glossy pictures, only lots of well-written words and occasional woodblock engravings and line drawings. Teague struck a deal to be the journal’s Australian agent.

The plan was to use Hortus to launch a garden publishing business, though that plan required heavy pruning. Florilegium has published some of our finest garden writers– Peter Valder, Michael McCoy, Alistair Hay – but the business has been primarily a retail operation of new and secondhand books, which Teague takes on the road. His tall lanky frame is a regular sight at plant fairs and garden shows around the country. “I can see thousands of people over a weekend at a plant fair, or 300 people in an afternoon at a Cottage Garden Club meeting,” he says. “I’d never see that as foot traffic here.” And it’s true that in the hour we spend in his shop off Glebe Point Road, no customers turn up. Except me, my attention instantly snagged by a new book about Piet Oudolf’s life and work and home garden, Hummelo.

With Christmas in sight, Florilegium’s customer base is bolstered by seasonal shoppers, and Teague resists helping them out with specific recommendations. “I stock more than 5000 titles,” he pleads, “across so many different interests: design, individual plants, environmental issues, books that are just a good read, botany, plant hunting, growing food….” Pushed, he admits that Huanduj: Brugmansia, by Alistair Hay, Monika Gottschalk and Adolfo Holguin, which Florilegium published in 2012, is a personal favourite for the depth of its research and the questions it brings up about human relationships to plants.

His advice to garden book gift-givers is to consider the reading and garden tastes of the giftee; to take note of any highlighter circles in a Florilegium catalogue left open on the kitchen table, or to visit the shop and chance the serendipity of bookshop racks and their armfuls of intrigue and surprise.

In season

November 24

In now: Young is the heart of the NSW cherry industry, and the region is expecting a great crop after a cold winter. It’s best-known for ’Ron’ a big dark-red cherry with firm sweet flesh, named for the son of the man who developed it in the 1920s.

At their best: Australian grapes shift the Californian imports off this shelves this month.

Best buy: Cos lettuce is a sturdy green that will take a hefty dressing: blue cheese and walnuts; or anchovy mixed through yoghurt or buttermilk.

In the vegie patch: Keep tomato plants pristine by picking off and binning any brown lower leaves.

What else:

  • lots of Sydney-grown basil spells the start of pesto season
  • for the best luck in peaches, choose those that show skin turning from green to gold at the stem end.
  • white cabbage is a bargain – find a new coleslaw recipe
  • bunches of full-grown spinach are good value
Plants I love

Hoyas for Sydney

So now I know I did the exact wrong thing. Last summer, charmed on the way to the compost bin by the vanilla sweet scent of the Hoya carnosa blooming deliciously in the lattice fence, I picked a flower stem. Hoya carnosa you might know better as wax flower. Your gran probably grew it in the shade house. The blooms are globes of multiple tiny pink waxy star flowers with a white centre, like a fairy disco ball. I put the flower stem in a little ceramic sake jug and admired it for a week.

Rookie error. It turns out that most hoyas flower on the same bud nodes year after year so having picked the flower I’ve wrecked any opportunity of having flowers on that stem this year. It was Wes Vidler who gave me the bad news. Wes and his wife Lorraine own Weslor Nursery, which specialises in climbing plants and hoyas. They grow more than 90 of the 250 hoya species, so are well on the way to collecting the set. Wes and Lorraine grow their hoyas at Imbril, an hour west of Noosa, but plenty of hoyas do well in the frost-free gardens, balconies, courtyards and houses of Sydney. They grow on trellis, up trees, pillars and tripods, as groundcovers, and in hanging baskets.
Hoya kerrii ‘Sweetheart’ is a favourite for baskets for its distinctly heart shaped leaves. It also has pale pink flowers and says Wes, ‘flowers its guts out’. ‘Hoya Bella’ has pointy foliage and pink-starred, white fragrant flowers. In its native North India it cascades from the crooks of trees, and is consequently stunning hanging from a pot.

Hoya kerrii

This is Hoya kerrii, photo courtesy of Wes Vidler. As I said, I picked my Hoya carnosa, didn’t take a picture of it, so have nothing to show til it flowers again.

I was calling Wes for a recommendation for a hoya to grow up a tripod. His first suggestion was the one currently astonishing visitors on his front balcony. It is Hoya Macgillvray, native to Cape York, with the most extraordinary dark purple flowers that look like bats with outstretched wings.

Hoya macgillivaryii 'Langkelly Creek' 7 jpg

This is Wes’ Hoya macgillivaryii ‘Langkelly Creek.

It’s too cold in Sydney to have this beauty outdoors, but Wes thinks it would be fine in a bright spot by a window inside. A better bet for a filtered sun position in the garden is Hoya australis, another native, with a loose globe of white flowers in autumn.

Hoya australis ssp. australis

Hoya australis, also by Wes.

Hoyas are mostly epiphtytic and like growing in a tight spot. They should only be potted up when totally root bound, and then only into a pot the next size up. They don’t need much water, and only in the growing season, not in winter. A warm season regular feed of weak foliar fertiliser will promote growth and flowers, but the real trick to flowers is enough light. They prefer morning sun and the dappled light under trees. You can often find them, not always named, at Bunnings and at garden centres. Better is to buy from the experts. The Vidlers mailorder at www.weslorflowers.com, and will have a stall at Collectors’ Plant Fair at Clarendon in April.

In season

November 17

In now: The blackberry and its offspring, the loganberry, dewberry, youngberry and boysenberry, all come into season in late spring when local Sydney strawberries are in fine form and red currants are juicy and tart. Let them all mix and mingle and ooze a little with a sprinkling of sugar before pouring over whipped cream and meringue.

At their best: Honey gold mangoes are firmer-fleshed than Kensington Prides, with a narrower seed and less fibrous flesh. Fans don’t mind that they are also pricier.

Best buy: Spring growth on parsley is soft and tasty. Make it the star of a salad.

In the vegie patch: Hang out fruit fly traps around tomato plants to catch male fruit fly. Follow up with Yates Fruit fly Control or Eco Naturalure.

What else:

  • white and yellow nectarines are good, eaten firm or soft and juicy
  • there is usually white asparagus available briefly at this time of year, but the Australian crop failed this year, so it’s all green, with a little bit of purple.
  • plenty of locally grown snowpeas
  • put some mushroom flats on the barbcue

Bee scene

The tomatoes are flowering. That’s a good start, but pollination has to occur to convert those flowers to fruit. Many plants use food in the form of nectar to lure pollinators to the flowers, which then pick up and distribute pollen on the way in and out of the dining room. Tomatoes are one of the 20,000 or so plant species that evolved a different arrangement. They offer pollen itself as food and to get it insects need special skills. They must vibrate tubes inside the flower so violently that pollen explodes out – onto the bee and the female flower parts. It’s called buzz pollination and big fat furry bumblebees are experts. Honeybees can’t do it at all.

Our local specialists in buzz pollination are native bees. There are some 2,500 species of bees that call Australia home, though that figure is a bit rubbery as only 1600 have been described and named. Dr Katja Hogendoorn, from the University of Adelaide, who has named four of them herself, says the Sydney region is home to “some quite spectacular species of buzz pollinating bees, including quite a few of the blue-banded bees, the teddy bear bee, and the gold and green nomia bee.”

Buzz pollination captured on video and played at normal speed sounds like a usual bee buzz, interspersed with a turbo-charged buzz like a bee-world jackhammer. When the video is super-slowed it shows that the sound is made when a bee head-bangs the flower at a speed of 350 times a second.

Buzz pollination by Blue-banded bee

Here’s a shot of buzz pollination in action, courtesy of a blue-banded bee. The terrific image is by Marc Newman. See more of his great bee work: https://www.flickr.com/photos/koolbee/

In commercial tomato glasshouses buzz pollination is faked using a kind of re-purposed electric toothbrush called a vibrating wand. In research by Melissa Bell, conducted at the University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury, blue-banded bees were found to be just as effective pollinators as the laboriously applied vibrating wand, and both methods produced fruit that was rounder, heavier and larger than the controls, and more of it.

Invite bee headbangers around to your place to improve the quality and quantity of harvests of not just tomatoes, but also eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin and blueberries, which are all buzz pollinated. Native bees are solitary and around half of the known species, including blue-banded bees, build their nests in the earth. A single hole in the ground might lead to a subterranean apartment block housing up to 100 single-dwelling bees. So leave some bare soil unmulched, especially by paths or between stepping stones. Alternatively build a bee brick house from powdery clay (details at www.aussiebee.com.au). Other local bees live in holes of various diameters in sticks, and these bee hotels can be made or purchased.

Buzz pollinating native bees don’t produce honey, but gardeners find that the rewards of having them visit are sweet.

Blue-banded bee

Another of Marc’s blue-banded bee shots, included for no other reason than it is so cute. This one is feeding on nectar in lavender flowers.

One more thing:
Katja Hogendoorn’s latest research is in using honeybees as ‘flying doctors’, delivering biological controls to blossom to prevent fungal attack. The method has been proven effective in strawberries and offers an alternative to commercial strawberry growers’ weekly antifungal sprays. Next up – cherries, summer fruit, pear and apple. To find out more: facebook.com/Beesasflyingdoctors

In season

November 10

In now: Sadly the ecclesiastical hue of purple asparagus fades to drab when cooked so it’s best bought super-fresh and enjoyed raw.

Hard to find: Lemons are in short supply and the gap is filled with imports from the US. Search for local fruit or experiment with sour alternatives.

Best buy: Baby bok choy grows fast. When the weather stays warm it can be harvested just a month after sowing. The speedy turnaround is reflected in the price –always a bargain.

In the vegie patch: Sow a new patch of lettuce and rocket to ensure homegrown salad for Christmas lunch.

What else:

  • Add some watercress to the salad mix
  • Those big fat blueberries are at their best for only a bit longer
  • It’s getting to the end of the run for the navel oranges, and not quite time to pick the Valencias, so shop carefully to find well-stored fruit
  •  The US-developed Zee Sweet nectarines are firm when ripe – perfect for transporting long distances.  They are the only nectarine sold with a name so you know what to do if you like them, and if you don’t.