In season

May 3

In now: Finally, the new navel orange harvest has started and those US imports will fade from stores. New season fruit has a bracing acidity and intense flavour.

At its best: Sage is in its final stages of lush growth in the garden. It’s a great match with other autumn flavours like pumpkin, walnuts and mushrooms.

Best buy: Shoppers win when broccoli grown in both Queensland and Victoria, arrives in Sydney.

In the vegie patch: Mail-order rhubarb crowns or plant potted plants into rich, well-drained soil. Rhubarb does best with morning sun and protection from hot afternoon sun in summer. Feed enthusiastically for big harvests.

What else:

  • when the kiwi fruit get soft and mushy and even the kids turn up their nose, take advantage of the fruit’s actinidin enzyme to tenderise squid, cuttlefish or cheaper cuts of meat. Smoosh over the meat, marinate for no longer than 20 minutes, and rinse or scrape off before cooking.
  • try a raw beetroot salad. Slice into matchsticks and enjoy the crunch.
  • the imperial mandarin currently filling lunchboxes is an Australian original, discovered here in 1890. Named as a tribute to Queen Victoria, who had celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887 do you think?
  • rambutans have arrived from tropical north Queensland. Choose those with fresh green spines.
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Sarrecenia leucophylla
Plants I love

From the weird world of carnivorous plants

Smarter gardeners than I approached Collectors’ Plant Fair a few weeks back with a strategy. Some had a list, others had a budget. I had a resolution to bring home only the plants I knew exactly where to put in my over-crowded garden. I failed, but I wasn’t the only one – the ATMS had run out of money by Saturday afternoon. Of all the little plants now resting on the terrace til I find them a home in the garden, let me tell you about the one I have snuck inside to admire.

Sarrecenia leucophylla

It is a trumpet pitcher plant, Sarracenia leucophylla, a carnivorous plant from the bogs of the south-east of the US. It’s endangered at home, mostly due to housing development on the Gulf Coast, but also to poaching for the florist trade. It’s easy to see why poachers would bother getting their feet wet. The pitchers are tall slender funnels, topped with a frilled hood. The top of the pitcher is a translucent white, veined with red or green in fabulous patterns. The effect of the erect funnels, each turned a different way, is like a nest of exotic baby birds, mouths agape awaiting dinner.

I bought the plant from the stall of the Australian Carnivorous Plants Society. Kirk Hirsch is the group’s publicity officer. Hirsch fell for carnivorous plants as an 8-year-old when he started ordering venus fly traps, pitcher plants and sundews by mail order. “I do like the irony of them,” he says. “If I find something eating my plants, a caterpillar or bug, down the throat of another plant it goes.”

Just as good is the ingenious way the plants catch their food. The white-topped pitcher plant I bought is an especially good flycatcher. Flies are attracted to the white top, and get busy collecting drops of nectar around the rim. As they do, the plant attaches tiny waxy plates to the feet of the flies so that they lose their ability to hang on and slip down the funnel. The narrow space at the base of the pitcher is so tight the fly can’t gyrate its wings and get lift off. It’s stuck. A pitcher needs only a few flies a week to feel well-fed, but if there are a lot of flies around, the pitchers can fill with trapped flies.

If that happens I’m putting it straight outside! Pitchers like humid conditions, wet feet and full sun, but Hirsch reckons I can admire it up close for its autumn display as long as it gets at least four hours of direct sun a day. Once the weather gets cold, the pitchers will brown off, the plant will go dormant, and then I will have to find a proper home for it.

You can find pitcher plants at water garden specialists, and at meetings of the Carnivorous Plants Society.

[golast] The Carnivorous Plants Society meets on the second Friday of the month at Woodstock Community Centre, Burwood, at 7.30pm. Next meeting: May 13. More: www.auscps.com.

It’s time to

Buy bromeliads
Bring a box to collect new bromeliads, tillandsias, neoregalia, guzmanias and more at the Bromeliad Fair. Saturday, April 30, 10am- 4pm and Sunday, May 1, 9am – 12pm, Concord Senior Citizens Centre, 9-11 Wellbank Street, Concord.

Divide broms
If not buying new stars, it is still a good time to clean up bromeliad clumps. Once pups are a third as big as the mother remove the pup, compost the tired old plant and replant the fresh newbie.

Support broadbeans
Broadbeans will flop and flail if not given good support. Create a frame with bamboo stakes and a cats cradle of string in several tiers to support 1.5m of growth.

Admire camellias
Eryldene, historic home of Sydney’s camellias, is open May 7 and 8, with morning and afternoon high teas both days as a Mother’s Day treat. 17 McIntosh Street, Gordon. $24 plus $8 entry fee. Bookings: www.eryldene.org.au.

 

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In season

April 26

In now: Sweet persimmon, are also sold as fuyu fruit, can be eaten firm and crisp, skin and all, or left to soften. Harder to find are original persimmons, which ripen to a super-sweet jelly scooped out of the skin with a spoon.

At its best: Quinces have renowned storage capacity and a sweet fragrance so were used to perfume the linen cupboard in the days before scented candles. Enjoy their craggy golden good looks and fresh smell now, then cook them later.

Best buy: Bananas are a bargain.

In the vegie patch: Sow calendula seed through the vegie patch for colour, bee food, and edible petals through winter.

What else

  • fresh horseradish supplies are increasing, just as you were thinking about roasting that beef standing rib.
  • Portuguese traders introduced the Japanese to pumpkin  in the 16th century and they’ve loved it ever since. Try roasting wedges of pumpkin, Jap, of course, with teriyaki sauce.
  • look out for fresh Australian walnuts, sold in shell
  • flavour is good in celeriac now
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Plants I love

The supermodel of lemons

A few weeks ago the baby green fruit on my lemons were so well-camouflaged I feared the harvest would be a dud. But they have now fattened up and are starting to weigh down the branches with promise of lemons through to summer.

I grow ‘Dwarf Meyer’ in pots. The meyer is thought to be a cross between a lemon and one of the Chinese oranges. Frank Meyer, who worked for the US Department of Agriculture, found it on a visit China in 1908, and naturally he named it after himself. The parentage explains its deliciously sweet flavour and beautiful smooth skin.

Meyer lemon

My supermodel reference is all about the skin – look at that glowing complexion and tiny pores!

Its good looks and fine flavour are reason enough to grow it, and there are practical considerations too. A dwarf meyer, grafted on to ‘Flying dragon’ rootstock, gets to just 1.5 metres, which means the fruit is always easy to reach. I considered a dwarf version of the ‘Eureka’ lemon, which has the benefit of year-round fruit, but it gets to 3m, which is not dwarf enough.

To grow lemons successfully in containers, go large. Forty centimeters in diameter is the minimum, but bigger is better. Use a quality potting mix and choose a spot with at least six hours of sun a day. Water regularly, but don’t let the roots get sodden. Ditch the pot saucer or anything else that would prevent water draining from the pot. Feed often. Lemons are called gross feeders, which is the horticultural term for ‘must be fed like a sumo wrestler’. Use something organic like Dynamic Lifter Plus Fruit Food every two or three months. The lemon’s hungry habit means that gardeners should resist the temptation to underplant with a fringe of blue lobelia looping over the pot, or a blast of freesias mixing scents with the lemon blossom in spring. Gorgeous, but, trust me on this, they will diminish the health and vigour of the lemon.

Villa Gamberaia

What do the Italians not know about growing lemons in pots! These at Villa Gamberaia, above Florence

It’s not necessary to prune lemons to promote fruiting, so the only pruning needed is to tidy the plant, trim it to shape, or remove dead growth.

Espaliered lemon, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

If you did want to get busy with the secateurs, lemons make a good espalier subject. These on the sunny south-facing wall of Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore.

A warning: there will be pests. Green or black sap-sucking aphids may attack new growth through the warm weather and citrus leaf miner will put silvery trails through leaves in summer and autumn. Squish the aphids and control leafminer with sprays of Eco-oil or Pest Oil. Scale might get a hold if the tree gets water-stressed, and this can cause a cascade of problems. The scale produces honeydew, which in turn causes sooty black mould and attracts ants. The ants protect their honeydew feast by protecting the scale against predators. To avoid all this keep the tree sun-drenched and regularly watered and fed. If scale attacks, Eco-oil or Pest Oil will deal with all but a major infestation, and if ants are a problem, smear a barrier of Vaseline around the trunk. But don’t get fixated on potential problems. The minimal effort demanded is more than compensated for by the pleasure of sunshiny lemons all through winter.

 

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In season

April 19

In now: Feijoas are sometimes called pineapple guavas in an attempt to describe the tropical fruit salad-dressed-with-lemon-juice flavour of this South American fruit. Big in New Zealand, demand for the feijoa is growing here too. Fruit is ready to eat when slightly soft.

At its best: Fennel of all sizes is fresh and crisp.

Last chance: Snake beans are on the way out so act fast for one more green papaya salad.

In the vegie patch: Feijoa is a great backyard fruit tree; small, clippable and with beautiful red edible flowers. Sadly fruit fly love it so harvests are best when the tree can be netted. Where fruit fly is not a problem it makes a fabulous edible hedge.

What else:

  • I like the tartness of the early season mandarins available now
  • there are now packham pears to add to the corella, buerre bosc choices
  • look for bargain bunches of silver beet
  • the persimmons are getting better as the nights get cooler
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Gardens

Reasons to love that stinky fungus

The fungi are fruiting. In the mountains to our west and south, saffron-coloured pine mushrooms are popping through the fallen pine needles, promising great fry-ups. Less deliciously, in my own garden, smelly, slimy red stinkhorns are making their eerie, oozy appearance. I also have brown, earthstars, well-camouflaged atop the mulch.

Fungus Geastrum triplex by Alison Pouliot GEA8315

This is an earthstar, Geastrum triplex, captured by Alison Pouliot, as its most fresh and charming. As it ages the creamy bottom crisps and curls up ,making it look more star like.

Other gardeners might notice the red, starfish-shaped sea anemone fungus, Aseroe rubra, which was the first fungus described in Australia. That was back in 1792 and we’ve barely touched the surface since. Dr Brett Summerell, director of science and conservation at the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, has long had an interest in mycology, the study of fungi. He reckons that a square metre of well-mulched garden is likely to be home to hundreds, and possibly thousands, of species of fungi, the vast majority unknown to science. If you fancy naming things as a personal legacy, mycology is the place to be, with an estimated 90 per cent of species yet to be named. (And here’s a tip if you’re heading that way- unlike the rest of us mycologists pronounce fungi with a soft ‘g’, as in elegy and long ‘i’ as in ice. Both pronunciations are correct, but ‘funjeye’ is like a secret handshake among experts.)

Fungus Aeseroe rubra by Alison Pouliot

This is the starfish fungus, Aseroe rubra, photographed by Alison Pouliot. The black gooey slime is the stinky bit which attracts the flies and ants.

Our level of ignorance about fungi is surprising given how reliant we are on these organisms for our survival. “They break down organic matter, build the soils, and create the nutrients which feed the plants,” explains Summerell. “Mycorrhizal fungi also have relationships with flowering plant roots, extending the plant’s ability to extract nutrients and water from the soil.” By providing a basis for plant life, fungi provide for us.

Fungi are also the reason we are painfully shifting gears away from fossil fuels. Back in the old days, some 300 million years ago, fungi started evolving enzymes that could break down lignin, the ‘glue’ that helps hold trees together. That meant that the huge deposits of carbon that over time became oil and coal were no longer laid down. Depending how you look at it, by making fossil fuels a finite resource, the fungi either saved our future, or ate it.

And while in the mood to marvel, consider that the world’s largest living organism, known as the Humungous Fungus, is a single colony of Armillaria solidipes that covers 9.6 square kilometres of the Malheur National Forest in Oregon in the US, and is somewhere 1,900 and 8,650 years old. Armillaria solidipes is typical of the two-faced nature of fungi. It can be a tree pathogen – the Humongous Fungus was identified as the culprit in a mysterious and massive epidemic of dieback in the forest – yet it’s also known as the honey mushroom, and is edible, as long as it’s cooked.

Some gardeners worry about the stinky fungi and spooky earthstars in their gardens and want to know how to get rid of them. There’s no need. They are signs of biological good health. Ignore the smell, and the flies, and instead admire, photograph and study the pop-ups and give yourself credit for producing healthy, fungus-rich soils.

Photos on this post are by fungiphile photographer Alison Pouliot. Join her in workshop introducing the Curious Kingdom of Fungi in Albury on May 9,12 or 14. 

 

It’s time to

Buy plants
Maureen Martin and Keith Smith propagate plants to raise funds for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. They have a big sale tomorrow, of more than 300 varieties from abutilons to zebra grass. 45 Parklands Avenue, Lane Cove North, 10 am to 4pm. More: thepropagatinggardener.com.au

Divide aggies
Clumps of agapanthus that are outgrowing their spot can be divided now. If the clump becomes overgrown, the tangled mass of roots make it very difficult to shift, but if you do it reasonably often it’s a much easier job and they’ll flower better for not being squeezed.

Book Bowral
Bowral’s autumn garden weekend features six cool climate gardens and a plant fair at the new Southern Highlands Botanic Gardens. It’s on next weekend, April 23 and 24. Find garden details and buy tickets at www.shbg.com.au

Plant bulbs
Try freesia, jonquils, lachenalia and ipheion in a sunny spot in pots or garden beds. Wait until the weather is colder before panting out tulips or hyacinths.

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