Discovering a hidden haven in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria, Australia

I’m not posting much (well, at all really) at the moment, so it’s time to put the GippyGarden blog in mothballs, at least for a time.

After some high hopes 2012 has taken off to a bit of a shaky start and while some good things are happening,  the garden and the blog are a *little* neglected.

So. I’ll probably be back, maybe even sooner than I expect. But in the meantime thank you to all my lovely and thoughtful gardening friends and visitors from around the world.

I’ll try to at least come and visit your blogs from time to time 😉

Heidi

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Harlequin bugs or Dindymus versicolour have been a spring and summer problem in my garden for a while now, but with good spring and summer rain this year they are doing a little too well. It seems they are playing havoc in a lot of local gardens right now as some of the most common searches that bring people to my blog involve variations on; dindymus, harlequin bug and ”Little red bug eating my plants”.

Adult Dindymus versicolour clustered on a rose leaf.

I’m also happy to say that I’ve learnt a think or two since I first naively posted about this little bug.

It wasn’t that long ago that I thought the Harlequin Bug was kind of attractive in its little soldier’s red coat and thought it was probably harmless.  After all, I could see that it was the caterpillars and the katydids that were doing the most obvious damage in the garden.To my own disgrace I later learnt that immediately obvious does not necessarily mean most significant. This is because Dindymus is a sneaky little sap sucker.

But I am surprised to find that there is still not a lot of information readily available about these bugs on the net, at least not in an easy to understand format in relation to gardening. Much of what I can find is either quite scientific or more people asking what they are and how to stop them eating their plants.

So, I thought I’d put together a collection of the bits and pieces that I have learnt. I am no scientist, so if anyone can see that what I’ve said is factually incorrect, please feel free to point it out! Additional references would be great too.

Identification

The Harlequin Bug I am referring to here is Dindymus versicolour and it is an Australian native. It is listed as a native pest species on the PaDIL biosecurity website found in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Because the common name is the same, it has been mixed up with Murgantia histrionica from Mexico. Both are of the Hemiptera order. Dindymus versicolour is of the sub order heteropter, which is the ‘true bugs’. Some more information about this order of insects can be found here at the CSIRO website .

Mating pair and a young harlequin bug on a sunflower.

The photos give you an idea of their general appearance with black, red and orange/yellow making up their distinctive ‘harlequin’coat. Their undersides are a pretty green, sometimes with some yellow. However, there may be some colour variation.

The female is the larger of the species and they couple end to end while mating. Very young ones may just be red with a black spot and a little white around the margins. At a very cursory glance they can be mistaken for a ladybug.

Young harlequin bugs on a rose leaf.

Behaviour

For anyone looking at these little bugs in the garden and wondering if they are a potential problem or not the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’

The Harlequin bug does not take great big obvious bites out of anything, it hides and sucks the life out tender stems (and fruit). Look for stem damage and wilting flower buds and fruit. In my garden I have observed them in greatest numbers on Callistemon, Australian native hibiscus, nasturtium, tomatoes, and hollyhocks. They have also been in numbers on sweetcorn, sunflowers, sage and roses.

visibly damaged tomato stems and one of many harlequin bugs from last summer.

These are one of the few bugs to actively hide from potential predators. If you watch them carefully you will notice that when they are not feeding they will stay in sheltered positions.  If they are caught out in the open they will dive behind leaves and stems as you approach. They don’t go far and sneak back out when you stop moving.

One or two bugs on their own won’t do much harm, but the sad reality is that this is often not a bug that comes in ones or twos. Not for long if you plant a tasty crop anyway. In numbers they can overwhelm tender plants, particularly nice juicy ones having a growth spurt.

Predators

I can’t find much information on the subject of predators. I haven’t observed anything eating these bugs and given the quantities they appear in, it seems natural predators don’t readily keep them in check. I think the question of predators is an interesting one. As they are a native species I would think something out there would have evolved to think they are tasty. Or have we wiped out their natural predators? This is a subject I’d like to learn more about!

Control

I avoid spraying with chemicals but these bugs have a tough protective coated shell which means that they can resist most sprays anyway.

The only sure-fire way I learnt to deal with them was thanks to ‘Gardening Australia’ and is surprisingly quite simple. It’s ordinary dish washing liquid mixed with water…or in the classic words of former presenter Peter Cundall:

“…you’ve discovered the supreme Australian pest, the harlequin bug. I call them “B doubles”, the way they get around when they’re courting. How can you kill them, because they’re covered with a kind of a wax, and that actually repels normal sprays. The answer, believe it or not, is to get the cheapest possible detergent and make a very strong solution with water and spray it on the clusters in the morning when they’re out in the sun. It gets into their breathing tubes at the sides of their, body blocks them up and they are so brilliantly dead.”

From ‘Gardening Australia’ TV show episode 39 transcript.

I prefer  to make up the solution in a small bucket and pick them off if I can so I don’t accidentally get other insects with the spray, but sometimes I will spray if they are looking to be getting really out of control. So I make sure that the detergent I am using is as environmentally friendly as possible so that any residue if I do spray is not causing further problems.

Happy gardening, I hope your good bugs and many and your pest bugs few!

Heidi

As promised, I’m following up my recent post on our visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.

This time it’s a quick look at the trees as I (almost literally) jog past to catch up with the rest of my family. Apologies for some of the photos looking a little smeary…apart from zipping past at hight speed I think I got some sunscreen on the camera lens!

The Separation Tree (River Red Gum)

Let’s start of with the ‘Separation Tree’ a majestic old River Red Gum (eucalyptus camaldulensis) that was already there when the gardens were established in 1846. The tree is intertwined with colonial history as ceremonies to commemorate the separation of Victoria from the colony of New South Wales were held by it in 1850. The added historical point I like is that the tree actually pre-dates European settlement. Sadly the tree was badly damaged in 2010 by apparent vandalism and the garden’s staff are working to repair the damage and save the tree. As this page from the CSIRO describes,  in the right conditions River Red Gums are long-lived trees and a good 700 years is not unheard of.

Corymbia Ficifolia (Red Flowering Gum) 'Summertime'

Above is a Corymbia, just for the sheer exuberant joy of their flowers at this time of year. The bees and the birds just love them! We used to have quite a few of them planted as streets trees in our area, but for some reason they got the chop.

Moreton Bay Fig

Moreton Bay Figs (ficus macrophylla) are the classic tree of an Eastern Australian Botanic garden to me. They are more famously associated with the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden, but I remember being fascinated by them as a child when I first visited the Melbourne garden. After all, those big buttresses and crevasses hidden beneath a wide leafy canopy have to be the domain of fairies don’t they?

I’m sorry I haven’t got a photo of the canopy of one of these fabulous trees. But you do need to have at your disposal a handy botanic garden or large park like garden if you want to plant one. They can grow up to 35 meters wide as well as high (eventually) and their roots can be very damaging. Some more information from the Australian Native Plants Society can be found here.

Above and below are poor photos of a very pretty tree, the Norfolk island Hibiscus (Lagunaria patersonii). While it’s from tropical Queensland (and as the name suggests, Norfolk Island) this tree is clearly quite at home in temperate Melbourne. It is a lovely largish tree and it did cross my mind to grow it (I’m going to have to replace a tree over winter) but the Australian Native Plants Society’s website also informed me that its seed capsules contain an irritant fibre, so perhaps some more research first.

This next one is planted in the lovely Children’s Garden within the Botanic Gardens. It is a Queensland Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris). Apart from having a very attractive form, it has many traditional uses and you can find out more about it here.

Last of all below (and to my own surprise) is the only photo of an exotic that I’ve chosen to include. Being a Botanic garden (particularly one established in Victorian times) there are plenty of exotic specimens in the garden, but it seems it was the locals that caught my eye on the day.  This is a Cockscomb Coral-tree (Erythrina crista-galli) from South America and I just love that bark. What texture!

There’s one more post from the visit to come, but there is so much going on in the Gippy Garden at the moment (plants…and pests…in full swing) that I might see what is news there before posting part three of this series.

Happy Gardening to you all,

Heidi

And Breathe…

I am not a big one for New Year’s resolutions, but I do feel reflective as one year ends and another one begins. 2011 has been an odd year for me and this is going to be quite a personal post.

Bodium Castle in England

Our trip to the UK (and a little bit) of Germany and France was an absolute highlight, but coming home from the much anticipated trip saw me land smack bang in a big puddle of ‘the blues’. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but now it seems to have been necessary to come to terms with the need for change and to eventually find the courage to start to make change.

The Lakes District

Despite knowing the life should be in balance I had been oblivious to the fact that mine was completely out of balance. Despite telling myself that work wasn’t the centre of my life it had become exactly that and it was consuming everything. Time with family, time in the garden, time to reflect and re-balance. I’ve always been someone who pursues work that is meaningful and have been fortunate to find it. But working in community services can exact a high price if you are not mindful of keeping things in balance.

Australian Yellow Admiral butterfly

The impact was to spend my time giving up what was dear to me for work. This spilled into always trying to fit in too many things in and to do things in a constant rush. No taking time. No mindfulness. No thinking things through. No time to enjoy. Just get it done and keep going.

I was becoming resentful of the intrusion but didn’t think there was a way out. To change jobs would mean only a relative change of scene. I felt I could only do similar to what I was already doing and I’d still be there with me making the same mistakes. I lost my passion and work was becoming just the place to go and earn the mortgage payments.

Funny though, as the end of the year started to approach I started to catch my breath, just enough. Just enough to see that it was time to stop seeing life pass by in a blur. Time to stop watching the garden growing over and my daughter growing up without having time to appreciate any of it.

Pot Marigold

Then a little glimmering possibility caught my eye. A possible change of career, with a gentler change of pace. A return to study yes, but with a whole new career possibly spanning out in front of me. And one that would be interesting, but not overwhelming. There is no guarantee that the opportunity will be given to me, but it is worth a try and a bit of persistence if the first opportunity does not work out.

But along with possibility has come the realisation that if I can make this change it might also mean that the house (and of course the Gippy Garden) has to be sold. Up until now I haven’t wanted to even contemplate that because to sell the Gippy Garden would be to sell my sanctuary. But I’m coming to realise that the Gippy Garden can, in essence, come with me even if I have only a small patch of dirt. While I’ve been miserable I’ve forgotten that this is still the lucky country in so many ways and even if I should have to move somewhere cheaper, it will still have a garden of sorts I can make my own and have some more time to enjoy it. It won’t be the end of the world. And who knows, it might not even come to that.

Sunflower and bee greeting the New Year on January 1st 2012

So here’s to a big leap into the unknown in 2012. I might fall flat on my face, but at least I feel alive again!

A very ”Happy New Year” to you all and all the best with any leaps into the unknown for you in 2012!

Heidi

Despite a fairly short visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne yesterday I managed to take an unreasoable amount of photos. It was a bit hard to resist because I love visiting these gardens and it was a perfect summery day. I just wish I had more time to wander!

The Botanical Gardens in Melbourne are not particularly old compared to other Botanic Gardens, as they were established in 1846. You can find out more about the history of the gardens here.

A view over the Ornamental Lake

Lots of turtles and eels live in the lake.

...as do lots of Black Swans

The gardens, although modernised in parts and tweaked to be less resource consuming in maintenance still hold Victorian era charm. There is something about the gardens that really speaks to me of childhood books and imaginings and I think they would be a wonderful setting for an adventure.

I even love the signage at the gardens, I hope that they never replace these beautiful hand lettered signs with computer printed ones!

While the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens hark very much to England as many public spaces and buildings at the time it was established did, the Royal Cranbourne Botanic Gardens has recently been established as a sister garden that is a more contemporary garden and one that holds Australian rather than exotic treasures. It takes pride in place rather than a distant land and I hope to be back soon to see the progress of stage two of this still very new Botanic Garden.

Still, I  wonder if it is genetic longing, but I do still love the old eclectic Victorian collector’s appeal of the Melbourne garden.

The Gardens House. Ah, to live here with a view over the gardens!

The border by the Garden House.

The gardens sit by our distinctively mud coloured Yarra River and can be reached by a pleasant walk through Queen Victoria gardens and past Government House from Flinders Street Station.

You can pass The Pioneer Women's Memorial Garden on your way through Queen Victoria Gardens on the way to the botanical gardens. Yes, that's a lot of gardens.

I’ll be back to do a couple more posts on my visit in the coming days. I’ll be sharing some of the beautiful old specimen trees and the newest development of ‘Guilfoyle’s Volcano’.

But for now, it’s time to go and face my own less than mainicured garden!

Heidi

I've been to the gardens several times and somehow never noticed this''roll'' of directors. Maybe it was even more overgrown on previous visits!

Hello!  Just taking advantage of a short break between preparations and festivities to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

I mustn’t gloat, but we did spend some of the day at the Sunny Creek Organic Berry Farm picking copious amounts of juicy berries in the sun, to bring back and enjoy this afternoon. Oh, that actually is gloating isn’t it? nevermind!

Although I must admit apart from a wonderful relaxing day with friends today, the silly season has been just that of late. So frantic with work and preparations and running around that while the garden has gone absolutly berserk with all the rain, I’ve barely done a thing to restrain it.

Getting totally out of control...

Still, I can’t complain too much, it is truly glorious in the Gippy garden right now and I’m looking forward to a few weeks off work to bring it to heel and to share it with you.

Starting to get it together again!

Stay Safe and I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Peaceful New Year!

Heidi

Double Delight rose

After moaning about my lack of success with ‘easy to grow’ garlic not that long ago, I gave it another go and experimented with growing it both in a compost improved garden bed and in a pot. I expected that the plants in the garden bed with rot, especially considering the very wet winter and spring we have had.

Taa-da! OK, it's not much to look at, but I'm very proud of my garlic!

At first I was surprised that what was growing in the pot did not thrive as did the plants in the garden bed. In fact all but one plant in the pot withered and died. Eventually I remembered that all but one (the surviving one) of what I had planted in the pot was the garlic I had tried planting out from bulbs I had bought from the supermarket. What went in the garden was bulbs from the nursery.

I was worried that this plant appeared to be starting to rot, so was very happy to discover healthy little bulblets instead!

Anyway, I may have harvested a little hastily, but the plants were starting to go to flower and yellow off and I was determined that I wouldn’t lose them to rot again, so up they came today. It is only a modest little harvest, but I’m very proud of it. I am also pleased that my small attempt to improve our clay soil seems to have worked, so I’m encouraged to start gathering in more compost!

Oh, and if anyone has any tips on drying and storing garlic from the garden I would be very interested!

Cheers,

Heidi

Aaaaaaa-choooo!

Yay its spring! Boo its hay fever season!

Being what my dear partner refers to as a ‘red headed asthma kid’ I’ve always been a bit on the allergic side. Nothing serious mind, but at certain times of the year I’ll make sure I’ve always got some hay fever tablets on hand. Sadly this year our daughter, who has up until now not been bothered by hay fever at all, is having a dreadful time of it.

Is this rye grass? I think so...but I really can't tell for sure!

The weather bureau did warn us that the wettest winter and spring for many a year would lead to a bad year for hay fever, and they certainly didn’t lie.

The problem is knowing just what it is that is causing the problem for her and finding our if there is anything at all that can be done to reduce exposure to it or to treat it.  Some plants are just so pervasive in the environment that there is no escaping them. Try getting away from grass going to seed in spring and summer for example. And of course it might not be pollen that is causing the allergy, but it is a very likely suspect right now.

On top of that some allergenic plants are not what you expect. I think I’ve mentioned before that Wattles (acacias) get a largely undeserved bad rap on the list of allergy suspects in Australia, but have largely been cleared. There is a lovely newsletter article from the Australian Plant Society here defending the much maligned wattle.

According to the Australian Society of Clinical Immunology, it is in fact the following plants that are known to most commonly cause allergic reactions in the Australian environment:

Annual Blue/Winter Grass, She Oak, Bahia Grass, Couch Grass (Bermuda grass), Bottlebrush (callistemon), Canary Grass, Cocksfoot/Orchard Grass, English Oak, Johnson Grass, Kentucky Blue/June Grass, London Plane Tree, Mango Tree, Murray Pine/ White Cypress Pine, Olive Tree, Paper-bark Tea Tree, Parthenium Weed, Paterson’s curse/Salvation Jane, Pellitory/Asthma weed, Plantain, Ragweed, Ryegrass, Silver birch, Timothy Grass, Wild Oat, Yorkshire Fog/Velvet Grass.

More detail from ASCI can be found here.

Callistemon. Friend or foe??

The plants I’ve highlighted in bold are ones I either have on our property, or can see if I peek over the fence. And they are the ones I can identify,or at least think I can. I have to admit I am particularly poor at identifying grasses, which is a shame, as they are a very common cause of allergy.

Rye grass is one that has been mentioned in several places, including this recent article from The Age newspaper as one of our major allergy causing problem plants. but I’m not sure I am correctly identifying it. I’ve been looking up images of it, but is still looks like well grass to me.

Some on the list really surprise me. Callistemon is one that I’ve never heard anyone talk about in the context of allergies and I’m a tiny bit suspicious of its inclusion. The Asthma Foundation tends to suggest that predominantly insect pollinated plants are generally a lot less of a problem then wind-pollinated plants.

The catkins of my silver birch are not mature yet...so 'not guilty' your honour!

I’ve heard of Silver Birch as a problem before, but for some reason I still feel inclined to look for a poor old wattle to blame rather than the three birch trees in my back yard.

On the other hand...the river birch is more advanced.

So, what (if anything) sets people to sneezing in your area when that time of year comes around?

See you next time,

Heidi

Where was I?

Yes I’m still here…but thinking of changing the name of my blog to ‘A Yearly Post from a Gippsland Garden’.  It would be more appropriate perhaps.

To be honest the joy of a trip overseas was followed up by a very melancholic few months. It took me by surprise, but thankfully I’m feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed again now 🙂 Thanks to those lovely bloggers who dropped me a line to say ‘Hi’…it might have taken until now to get a response out of me, but I appreciated it very much!

Well, it’s heading into late spring in the Gippygarden and it has been a wet one! The pattern seems to be four days rain then a day or two of blazing sunshine, so you can imagine what the garden is like. The weeds have never been happier. Thankfully some of the intentional plantings are pretty happy about it too and the garden is lush if unruly.

My personal bane the Harlequin Bug (dindymus versicolour)  is also pretty chuffed about all the lush new growth. So my post work relaxation routine seems to consist of carrying around a bucket of soapy water and picking off the bugs to drop into it. I can be heard muttering darkly to them as I find them clustered on my roses. Yes it’s a bit gruesome, but it is the only thing that seems effective without using toxic sprays that will equally hurt the good bugs (the soapy water that is, not the muttering).  It is requiring quite a bit of vigilance. Every day there are plenty of new bugs and my ultimate aim is to keep the population down before my tomatoes grow and produce ripe fruit.

No precious tomatoes for you, nasty little buggies...

In other garden news the garlic I planted in the garden bed has stunned me by growing better than what I potted up, which is a surprise, particularly when it has been so wet. None of it is growing fantastically, but it is all still alive and growing reasonably well.

Some garlic around Christmas...perhaps.

Lately I’ve been focusing on digging some more vege beds and planting for the bees, but more on those later. I’ll leave you with a couple of current bee favourites for now…

Bees love Borage and so do I. Who could resist that colour?!

Not a good perspective shot, but this is a tiny native bee. It is about a third of the size of a honey bee and is clearly enjoying our callistemon!

See you soon,

Heidi

It is a little disheartening as a novice gardener to fail at growing something and later read that it is one of the easiest ‘set and forget’ plants to grow. In fact, I won’t tell you how many websites I’ve just visited that start out with a variation along the lines of “Garlic is so simple to grow that anyone can do it.”

Anyone except muggins it seems.

I attempted to grow garlic for the first time last year and it rotted. Quite literally it dissolved away to nothing.

Belatedly I realise that my soil, which my roses and camellias seem to love to bits, is not to the liking of everyone in the garden. Especially not now that the drought is over (for now*) and winter is back with chilly and watery vengeance. Did I mention that I got sunburnt in Edinburgh a few short weeks ago?

In order to prove something that was already staring me in the face (especially after attempting to walk on the wet and greasy stuff in the rain and landing in it) I did a little experiment. Meet Clay:

Just add water!

Yep. My soil can hold water. Which, I acknowledge is not entirely a bad thing, as it did mean that deep-rooted plants like roses were able to survive the drought with little help. And it does, I read, mean that it is a soil that will hold nutrients. Sand, I imagine would be much harder to live with.

Still, at least I found confirmation via Organic Gardener Magazine that garlic is not overly keen on soggy wet feet. I know, you knew that already! Anyway, while improving my soil en-masse is not realistic, I’m going to have to start improving at least some of my soil.

Which means I’m going to have to learn something.

In fairness, I did improve the soil of the vege patch a little last year, but more by accident than design. I added lime and compost (even appropriately spaced apart in time) and well rotted manure.

But I put in compost simply because it was organic and I thought it would feed my young veges. I wasn’t really thinking about soil, so I didn’t really understand the role compost plays in improving soil. I thought the process of producing compost was all about producing something as intensely rich in useable organic matter as possible, so it was a real light bulb moment to read:

“Because of the humified nature of compost and its low concentrations of oxidizable carbon and available nitrogen, compost is relatively resistant to further decomposition, and additions of compost to the soil over time can increase the soil’s organic carbon and humic matter content. I add compost not so much to provide nutrients as to provide stabilized organic matter that will improve the physical properties of the soil.”

From and article by Keith Baldwin titled ‘Improving Clay Soils‘ on the Fine Gardening Magazine website.

Ah-ha! Now I get it! In fact, while I’ve never heard of  this magazine before (probably because it’s not an Australian publication) I found the whole article very useful and even did the ribbon test with a lump of my clay. The test confirmed that my soil is actually clay loam, rather than singularly clay. I’m not sure, but I think that clay loam is slightly more rubbish nutrient wise.

So, back to the garlic.  This time I have dug in some compost and  aged manure to the spot where I have planted my garlic. I also mounded the row the garlic is in to help with drainage.

I had hoped to grab some selected organic varieties from one of my favourite mail order seed catalogues, but I missed my chance when we were away. None of the local shops have any Australian grown garlic in at the moment either so the chance to grab some of that and pop it in the ground didn’t eventuate either.

I’ve heard that garlic imported from overseas (here they come in from China, Argentina and Mexico) can be heavily sprayed with chemicals, so I avoided those, but I must do some research and verify if it is true for myself one day. Anyway, I ended up just grabbing a couple of punnets of vaguely labelled ‘Australian Garlic’  from the nursery, comforting myself that at least they were getting on with the business of growing.

For insurance I have planted some garlic in a very big pot because I’m still not sure that I’ve done enough for those in the ground. It will be interesting to see of both groups survive and if they do, if there us any noticeable difference between them.

* After the 15 odd years before this one, it’s hard to say a drought is definitely over!

Just to show something does grow in my garden...I'm enjoying some emerging Helleborus