Persistent twitching in Weed Central

This is my argument for an active commute:

My view about halfway through my morning commute from deepest suburbia. Beats the back of the car in front, doesn’t it?  Okay, except if it’s this car:

Cornish witches' vehicle small crop.jpg

As soon as we’ve had breakfast, fed the chickens and wasted a small but irreplaceable part of our lives looking for a missing shoe,  there’s the walk via school to the train station.  It’s a twenty five minute rail journey – just long enough to get depressed by the newspaper – and then the last three k on foot from Epping Station to Macquarie Uni.  I’m ashamed to say it took me several years to figure out that the cash I save on therapy by hoofing that last leg well and truly pays for the expended foot-leather.

I’ll admit, it’s a pleasant, if hilly walk, down leafy suburban streets and across the bridge at Terry’s Creek, a tributary of the Lane Cove River.  In fact, over time, I’ve come to feel rather attached to this spectacularly weed infested rivulet – I’m tempted to say it’s not Terry’s, it’s mine.

I think it would be fair to describe this waterway as a colourful year-long festival of invasive and noxious species, as you can see above. And I haven’t even included decorative photos of the willows, the trad or the waving walls of bamboo that line the way.  Terry’s Creek is so densely hemmed in and overhung by broad leafed privet that walking down the path towards Brown’s Waterhole feels like stepping into a suburban remake of Apocalypse Now.

Danger high voltage square

Danger! High voltage!

What with the perpetual roar of Epping Road and welcoming ambience of the nearby electricity substation, your first thought wouldn’t be “valuable wildlife sanctuary”.  But in the 10 minutes I spend each morning and afternoon walking through through this part of Pembroke Park, a 500 metre strip of weeds and scrub, I’ve seen more small birds than I’ve seen over six years in beautiful Berowra, surrounded by national parks and with the freshest air in town.

Firetails flying off horizontal crop

The superb blue wrens, willie wagtails, red-browed finches and eastern spine bills are regulars.  My photographic evidence of the yellow thornbills and silver eyes consist of a sequence of butt-shots and blurry silhouettes – my white-browed scrubwren is only marginally better.  I’ve often been tempted to hunker down for an hour or two with a view to improving my collection of snaps but somehow I don’t think it would play well if I failed to rock up to my own lectures because I was busy with a long-lens camera behind a bush.

So there’s no proof I ever saw that startled pair of white-headed pigeons and or an eastern whipbird, the only one I’ve ever actually eyeballed. I suspect I snuck up on it, gallumphing footfalls obscured by traffic.  However, a few weeks back, I was dead chuffed to snap a very distant dollar bird having a rest in the overhead powerlines.

But according to a habitat survey from a few years back, there’s still loads of locals I haven’t seen.  Pardelotes!!  Powerful owls!! Someone bring the smelling salts!

Firetails alert plus wren crop closer

I’m not quite sure why this is such a good spot for LBBs (and LRBBs – little red and brown birds, LBBBs – little blue and brown birds, LYBBs etcetcetc). There’s the creek of course, and the lantana and the privet berries, and the tangle of bamboos and morning glories to hide in – weedy or not, the kind of dense multilayered cover that small birds need to survive, as this beautifully specific guide by the Habitat network points out.

There’s also plenty of native grasses, vines and trees, some quite recently planted, many pleasingly photogenic but also lots of the kind of spiky unglamorous bushes that are favoured by smaller birds as hide-outs –  kunzea ambigua, for instance.  This part of Pembroke Park, scrubby and not at all fun to bushbash through, is part of a line of green spaces stretching north to Lane Cove National ParkSmall birds need such “stepping stones” – contiguous patches of cover – to flourish.

The wrens and finches seem to particularly enjoy the grassy area a wee bit back from the main road, even during recent months when guys in high viz outfits driving tiny diggers would regularly park up around there and talk seriously about sewage pipes.  I suspect the more knowledgeable would call it an ecotone – an area where a number of different habitat types meet (… main road, suburban grass deserts, bush, privet rainforest, bike path…)

Equally interesting is what I don’t see in this little patch of scrub and noxious weeds.  I’ve spotted a wattlebird or two, but the mynahs and the currawongs seem to prefer the closely shaved lawns and unlovely topiary of adjacent suburbia only a few hundred yards away.

It’s lucky, probably, that the water dragons don’t share my landscaping snobbery.  They seem equally happy basking on the buffalo grass by the kerb, nestling under the hateful row of aloe plants, or zipping into the hinterland of privet, ehrharta and abandoned tyres.  I guess a suburban lizard’s gotta do what a suburban lizard’s gotta do.

How to murder your monster shrubbery

The short answer is “slowly and with feeling”.  But let’s not rush into anything.

I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of by-law in Hornsby Shire against putting your kids to bed with a recitation of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.  Something along the lines of the “Unsafe and age-inappropriate use of modernist poetry act of 1987”.  But when your eight year old requests read T.S.Eliot, what can you do?

 

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when if I say that T.S. seemed to be a teeny bit negative about ageing.  One can only speculate on how different this poem (and indeed his whole oeuvre) would be if Prufrock had focussed less on getting lucky with the sirens of the sea and more on pruning.

Because, let’s face it, gardening is an oldie’s game.  When, yet again, the annual spud harvest fits in a single soup bowl; when your carrots are absurdly abbreviated; when another fruitless year passes for the ungrateful kiwifruit vine, the middle aged gardener shrugs her shoulders and thinks “next year”.  The seasons tumbling past faster and faster just means a shorter delay before you have another go at germinating those ruby brusselsprouts.

Our Fraser Island creeper finally did its gaudy thing – flaunting great big, hot-pink clusters of flowers in the oddest place, not up where the growing fronds reach  towards the light but way, way down in the gloom underneath the rampant Sweetie kiwifruit vine.  It flowers on old wood.  What a fine turn of phrase!

The Tecomanthi hillii not alone in dragging its feet.  Here’s a wall of shame – some other plants that have taken their sweet time to do anything exciting at all.  At least the “Bower of Beauty” has finally decided to flower on our side of the fence, rather than, like it did last year, offering a display exclusively to he neighbours.

It seems fitting, then we’ve taken what might be politely described as a contemplative approach to the execution of the massive weeds that tower over our back garden.

Our broad-leafed privet rivals the great redwoods of North America.  We have a Japanese honeysuckle vine as gnarled and vigorous as a strangler fig, which scrambles through a hibiscus “bush” as tall as a two story building. If only the mystical growth potion that the erstwhile owners  poured on these doughty invasive plants would seep down the hill into my peaky looking zucchini plants.

I like to think incremental approach to weed-murder has some ecological justification.  Some weeds in some places – lantana, for instance – form a critical habitat, particularly for the smaller birds that have been disappearing from cities.  If you clear it without replacing it, the LBBs vanish too.

So over the last couple of years, as well as installing a spiky tangle of hakeas, callistomens, sorbs, grasses and vines in an out of the way corner of the yard, I’ve  been tracking down native fruit-bearing plants to replace the  tainted bounty of the privet and honeysuckle berries.  Purely in the interest of hungry birdlife, you understand.  Nothing to do with fetishistic plant-hoarding.

Daleys up in Maleny and The Good Karma Farmer in Newcastle are my bushtucker dealers.  In my experience, you can tell if it’s bushtucker because the critters get it before you.  Following this logic, I’ve put in lillypillies, native gardenia and Davidson’s plum, koda for the Lewin’s honey eaters and the brown cuckoo doves and blueberry ash for the wonga pigeons.  I’m fairly confident the birds won’t turn their noses up at the mulberries, the persimmons, my grapes, my persimmons and my cherries either, damn their eyes.

I’m still working on substitutes for the honeysuckle and the fine looking but weedy red trumpet vine we inherited from our house’s old occupants.   Along with the hibiscus, they’re a favourite of our regulars, the little wattlebirds, and the gorgeous eastern spinebill, an all too occasional visitor.

I’m slowly sliding the wonga wonga vines, the Bower of Beauty, the dusky coral peas and the guinea vines amongst the potato vines and the honeysuckle.  Lulling the evil invaders into a false sense of security before I strike… there will be time…

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

You see, Prufrock definitely has the makings of a gardener.  You may well murder and create after your hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, but don’t forget that cuppa tea*.

*Health and safety warning: this is a gardening blog, not a work of literary criticism.  No responsibility is taken for any adverse horticultural outcomes of incorrect readings of the Western literary canon.

Blood on the mulberries

This means war!  Or at least a humanitarian mission with military elements.

Just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by their generous assistance with your passive solar, suddenly the bowerbirds turn against you.   One minute they’re giving the liquidambar a light trim, the next they’ve descended on your mulberry tree and stripped it bare.

Mulberries are perfect backyard trees.  They’re easy to grow, fruit without chilly weather, and produce berries in spring before the fruitfly really get into gear.  Kids love to eat them: the Halloween themed blood-stained hands afterwards are a bonus.  You can feed them to silkworms which sorts out any number of school projects (and if you’re that kind of person you can weave your own scarves or caftans).  Chooks happily clean up the spoil.  And you never ever see mulberries in the shops – when they’re ripe they’re so soft and juicy they’re unshippable.  You have to eat them warm, straight off the tree.

And if that’s not enough, they also make a great spot for a diamond python’s mid-morning nap.

mulberry bush and snakey

There’s not much you can do wrong with mulberries, or so they say.  You’ve gotta love trees about which it can honestly be said: “you cannot kill them”.  You have to prune them for new growth and berries, but hacking randomly does seem to more or less work, though the outcome might be described less as “a classic open-centred vase shape” and more as “an ugly mess”.

The only bit of advice that people regularly give about mulberry trees is to avoid planting them near paths “to avoid stains”.  Given the chaotic state of our garden, I smiled smugly at this.  And then planted mine right next to the washing line.  Oops.

I know, I know, my Hick’s Fancy should have been netted against the birds (given that they can be weedy, this is probably a good idea for ecological as well as harvest-maximising reasons).  But the bowerbirds haven’t stopped at the mulberry.  They’ve also had a good go at the grapes up the granny flat wall and the kiwifruit vines on the “solar pergola”.  Exclusion netting is all very well but short of getting a great big net dropped from a helicopter to drape over the whole house and yard, there’s only so much you can do.  Thinking about it, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.  All I need is some air support.

Borage: a salad climax community

Once upon a time, in an autumn long long ago, the soggy spot between the chook yard and the custard apple tree looked like this: a jumble of useful greens – mizuna, tatsoi, bok choi, watercress, borage, rocket and giant purple mustard.

Mixed leaves edit

Some months later, thanks to a super-dry July, the chickens’ enthusiasm for salad and our squeamish wing clipping (as fellow chicken-blogger Julie Adolph notes, “chickens are not penguins“), this is mostly what the salad patch looks like:

Borage super closeup

Borage: it’s a survivor.  Apparently it’s an unfashionable term in ecological circles these days, but I reckon mustard leaves (“too spicy!”) and borage (“too furry!”) are the the climax community of our salad patch.

In theory, you can eat borage leaves – they taste like cucumber.  Very very hairy cucumber.  The flowers are gorgeous though: fab in a salad, especially thrown in with some fire-engine red nasturtium flowers and perhaps faded yellow (rather chewy)  blooms of aragula, or the tiny white floral clusters that sway around the garden when you let daikon radish go to seed.  The idea of freezing blue “starflowers” in ice cubes for fancy-pants drinks rather appeals to me too.

I suspect we will have more borage flowers in time for ice-clinking weather.  It self seeds very reliably, it seems, which troubles me a little, since we’re a hop skip and a jump from the edge of the bush.  Easy enough to pull out, though, and a bee-flower too.  There’s the usual unsubstantiated talk of companion planting – in this case with strawberries, which I imagine must look good at the very least.  I’ll keep an eye on it: it may have to be exiled, like lemon balm, that enjoyed our shady slope just a bit too much, or the eye-catching but definitely weedy red orach.  But for now, I’ll keep pleasing the bees.

Borage bee flower

Winners and weeds

A sighting in the garden today: brown cuckoo doves.  I’ve seen them here before, startlingly portly long-tailed pigeons, hanging out in the neighbours’ tangle of tall trees.  I spotted at least three today, one futilely hopping from branch to branch, doggedly followed by a stouter fella: I guess it’s breeding season.

I felt tremendously smug when I first saw this rainforest bird above my washing line.  I should have known better, having read Tim Low’s New Nature not so long ago. This is one bird doing alright out in the Anthropocene.  It’s a winner.

Brown cuckoo doves are spreading south from their usual stomping grounds.  I’m not surprised.  If I were a tropical bird, I wouldn’t mind it round Sydney at the moment: third warmest June on record, more than 2 degrees warmer than the longterm average – balmy!

And they don’t mind weeds either.  Apparently they relish regrowth around roads and logged forest, and lantana and wild tobacco suit them down to the ground.  Witness this shot of a cuckoo dove snaffling fruit from our embarrassingly giant large-leafed privet.  Privet tree.  Yes, yes, we are going to kill it off and chop it down – the Round-Up is in the cupboard… But reading Low has given me pause.  When we poison our oversized weed tree, will we lose our nifty rainforest critters too?

 

 

Sweetness and light

On our shady south-west facing hillside (who went house hunting without a compass, then?) there’s just one spot that gets plenty of light year round: not a bad place for some solar panels on the top of a pole. But right in that spot there’s a native tree, sweet pittosporum or pittosporum undulatum.  And there’s a healthy specimen of the same species dead to the north of our kitchen windows, right where the winter sun might otherwise beam through.

Hornsby Council is pretty proud of its status as a leafy north shore suburb – “The Bushland Shire” – and dissuades its rate-payers in the strongest of terms from cutting down trees.  But not this one.  Until 2011, despite its status as a native, gardeners had a licence to kill sweet pittosporum, along with a select few imported nasties – cotoneaster, camphor laurel, privet and coral trees. But now it’s a different story.  You can chop down quite a lot in Hornsby these days – pretty much any non-native tree.  You can even gaily hack down Australian natives that don’t hail from this part of the Hawkesbury.  But put that saw down!  Pittosporum is now right there on that not very lengthy list of protected local trees, shrubs, grasses and vines.  It’s a dramatic turnaround, from big-league environmental weed to local hero, all in the space of a single year.

So what’s going on here?  Tim Low’s immensely readable book, “The New Nature: Winners and Losers in Wild Australia” (Viking, 2002), a fat but fascinating volume filled with stories about birds and trees, insects and frogs and their complex inter-relationships with human beings, has a lot to say about weeds and natives, and in fact quite a bit to say about sweet pittosporum.  The essential argument of the book is that any quest to preserve untouched wilderness or to maintain nature free from human interference is not just doomed, but essentially ill-conceived.

Human influence has been making plant and animal winners and losers in Australia for many thousands of years, and Low documents not only the way some pragmatic species capitalise on urban environments (think peregrine falcons nesting in high rise buildings) but the way many others rely on continuing human intervention (like firestick farming or stock grazing) to survive.  Sydney’s green and golden bell-frog survives at the Brickpits in Homebush, a location described as “one of the most industrially polluted in the Southern Hemisphere” (24) because these frogs are tolerant of high levels of heavy metals, while the frog-killing chytrid fungus is not. Low points out the limitations of the distinction between “native” and “exotic” as a way of gauging the impact of animals and plants on biodiversity, and argues that decisions about what to conserve and how to do it, are in short, very very complicated.  Koalas can be forest killers and cows can step into the gap left by extinct megafauna in maintaining diverse grassland.  As a greenie and a gardener, I found the anecdotes and ideas in “The New Nature” provoking and intriguing, making me take a good hard look at my weed anxieties and my fantasies of a bird-friendly, local provenance garden.

Hornsby Council’s change of heart about sweet pittosporum illustrates Tim Low’s arguments beautifully.  Don Burke, the Australian Native Plants Society of Australia, Grow Me Instead (The Nursery and Garden Industry Association) and the Queensland Government all agree that it’s an invasive weed. “The New Nature” with its ambivalence about such terms calls pittosporum “our worst native weed” (250), “replacing diverse systems with monoculture” (201).  While a canopy of eucalypts allows a rich understory, pittosporum shades out nearly everything else (although that nasty garden escape, privet, apparently copes well).  Birds enjoy the pittosporum’s orange fruits and disperse its sticky seeds.  Not needing fire or light to germinate, and tolerant of richer soils than many other natives, pittosporum is a native to this neck of the woods, flourishing on the shale ridgetops on Hawkesbury sandstone – most of which are now built on.  Run off from houses and gardens has enriched the sandstone soils on the slopes and pittosporum has moved on in.  According to Low, “If you take eucalypt forest, add fertiliser and water and take out fire, you have a recipe for rainforest.  The pittosporum invasion is really a takeover by rainforest” (248).

Pittosporum undulatum has its defenders.  Jocelyn Howell from the Royal Botanical Gardens suggests that pittosporum can shade out and outcompete other more troubling weeds (although Tim Low would argue that even invasive weeds like lantana can play their own role as a habitat).  Others argue for it in terms of the food supplies it offers and the fact that it *is* a local really. Obviously, Hornsby Council has plumped for this point of view.  Most of the advisories suggest that it’s a weed only outside its home range, using provenance to distinguish true locals from native invaders.

But according to Low’s arguments, its home range isn’t the home it once was.  His book gives poignant examples of Sydneysiders talking about the impact of pittosporum (“pittos”) in terms of solastalgia, the sense of homesickness you have when you haven’t left home, but your home has changed forever.  Orchids and grasses gone, along with the smell of eucalyptus (248).  There are no easy answers here: it’s “a hard one”, “one of the most sensitive issues around” (249).  Are the eucalypt forests of the Hawkesbury slowly morphing into (monocultural) rainforest?  Will the catastrophic fires I expect and dread drive it back?

From a more selfish point of view, it seems like my kitchen windows will remain gloomy and my solar panels a dream, even as my fantasy as a kid growing up in the arid lands of the South Australian mallee, of coming home to a rainforest seems to be coming true…

Night of the Living Mulch: cover crops for the zombie apocalypse

When the very existence of humanity is threatened, perhaps by catastrophic global warming, perhaps by an attack of brain-eating monsters, what is the first thing you think of? Yes, we’re on the same page: ensuring an adequate layer of mulch under your fruit trees.  Ideally something that not only retains moisture and maintains soil structure but offers a little something for the humans struggling with a post-industrial lifestyle nearby.  So, to address the needs of fellow survivalists in these difficult times, I offer a run down on chlorophyll-laden companions for such moments of adversity.

Strawberries.

Image

Chance of surviving: Good, given consistent moisture and morning sunlight.  After a couple of years in the ground, susceptible to a virus that makes the fruits look like hairy-faced Cousin It out of the Adams Family – greenish protrusions all over the fruit.  Still tastes okay, though: it doesn’t pay to be fussy after the zombie apocalypse.

Productivity: Theoretically, excellent. A delicate reminder of the luxuries of gentler times.  In reality, in my garden, nada: easy pickings for critters. Maybe netting would help.

Capacity to out-compete weeds: Could do better.  Needs extensive straw mulch or weed matting.  This is your pampered city no-nothing who is the first to bite it when weapons are drawn.

Pepino.

Image

Chance of surviving: Excellent.  Said to be short-lived but can reproduce by layering, so new plants take root wherever branches lay on the ground.  Tolerates partial shade well and copes well with periods of drought.

Productivity: Again, theoretically, impressive.  Produces peach-sized juicy, mildly sweet fruits tasting like a slightly insipid melon – good in a mixed fruit salad.  Flavour will be surely enhanced by the scarcities after the breakdown of civilisation.  Fruits early, within the first year or so.  Unfortunately, fruit tends to droop towards the ground where fruitarian zombies and/or rodents can easily nab them.

Aesthetic appeal: (the art galleries may be filled with mindless corpses, but the beautiful things in life are still important) High.  Gorgeous little white and purple striped flower with a contrasting yellow stigma.  The light apricot-coloured fruit is dappled with purple and the long leaves are an attractive greyish green.

Capacity to out-compete weeds. Not bad.  Plenty of leaves right down to the ground, even in shade.  Can’t entirely crowd out ehrharta or trad, though, and it’s a pain to weed around and through it.  Not for neat freaks.  But neat freaks probably won’t cope with the survivalist lifestyle too well, so not to worry.

Comfrey.

Image

Chance of surviving. Comfrey will be the last plant standing.  Deep tap roots enable it to access any water available.  Needs some sunlight but copes with very little in my garden.

Productivity. This is the permaculture mother lode: high nitrogen, high potassium, a dynamic accumulator of mineralsNo doubt there are herbal types who will profess it cures cancer.  You can’t eat it and your chooks probably shouldn’t eat too much of it either unless you want them to have liver failure, but it’s a fantastic compost activator and decomposes into a comfrey tea that’s an all purpose liquid fertiliser.

Aesthetic appeal: Enormous textured grey-green leaves and lovely delicate purple flowers.  Smells pleasantly of cucumbers when cut.

Capacity to out-compete weeds.  Comfrey is a weed.  Well, the non-sterile versions are: you are best getting your hands on the Bocking 14 sort which don’t produce seeds.  Spend some time in the underground bunker planning ahead before you plant this, since, a bit like Jerusalem artichokes, once it’s in it stays there.  Any tiny piece of root (or stem) in the ground will produce another plant.  You can tear off its leaves three or four times in a year and it will come right back. In fact, comfrey may well be the plant version of the undead.  The large leaves and capacity to grow when all around are wilting means it keeps most competitors down though trad seems to be able to find a way.  Dies down briefly in winter which gives the other nasties a go.  Since Sydney will no longer have a winter in the near future this may become less of a problem.

Sweet potato.

Image

Chance of surviving: Very good. In theory dies back in winter (but see above).  Regrows from tubers left in the ground in previous seasons.  Copes well with drier periods, though it does need quite a bit of sun.

Productivity.  In my garden hasn’t produced an astonishing number of tubers, but I haven’t taken it very seriously as a root crop.  That will obviously change when civilisation breaks down and there’s no longer a chip shop around the corner.  The new leaves and shoots are an excellent alternative to spinach or swiss chard, juicy and quite mild flavoured.  They are much nicer to eat raw than rainbow chard, for instance, and apparently are a favourite food in the Phillipines.  The leafy tips grow back quickly after being harvested.

Aesthetic appeal.  Gorgeous.  Some varieties have heart shaped leaves, others palmate.  The leaves are a deep glossy green with purplish new growth.  Related to the (weedy) morning glory vine, so you may get some very pretty flowers towards the end of summer.  Apparently there are ornamental varieties with near-black or lime green leaves, but the culinary varieties are nothing to sneeze at.  Note: there will be zero tolerance of ornamental plants after the zombie apocalypse.

Capacity to out-compete weeds.  Not bad at all.  The leaves are large and there are lots of them.  The vine is quite vigorous and, like pepino, sends out roots where it touches the ground.  With a little light supplementary weeding, my sweet potato seems to have kept things under control around the artichokes and the citrus pretty well.

* * *

No advice here on weaponry or tips on an antidote for those snacked on by the undead, but we have covered the important issues.  Next week: hydroponics after the collapse of the West Antarctic Icesheet.