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

Posts tagged ‘learning to garden’

The dreaded dindymus versicolour

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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


At last, some (modest) success with garlic!

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!



Garlic and the Clay Man.

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

Identification help please!

Hello everyone,

I have a lovely plant in my garden that we picked up a few years ago. We promptly lost the tag for it as soon as we brought it home and now no one can remember what it is . But I’d love to know what it is!

(NB: All photos enlarge if you click on them.)

It is a fairly slow growing woody shrub, with pointed and grooved leaves that are mid green and manage to be both glossy and hairy at the same time. It flowers in clusters, starting as small pink and slightly waxy buds opening into sweetly scented white flowers.  It is a deciduous plant and the leaves change colour to a beautiful orangey red for the autumn.

Unfortunately I butchered it a bit as I pruned it back in a hurry to move it a few months ago. It is recovering well, but not much by way of flowers this year.

I’m sure someone out there will instantly recognise it! Please let ne know if you do!

Cheers, Heidi

Is This How You Kill a Lilac?

I think I’m killing my lilacs. But I don’t really know for sure…because I am becoming increasingly aware that I don’t really know anything about them. When I bought them I was advised that a sunny spot was favourite along with some good organic soil. They both get sun and I’m working on improving the soil.

A bud on Miss E Willmott

It all started last spring when I was admiring all the lovely lilacs flowering in my neighbourhood. All of them except mine that is.

At that time my plants looked healthy enough (one is three or four years old, the other two) but were resolutely not flowering. Then as summer wore on and turned to autumn I noticed the older of the two, which is the white one (Miss E Willmott I think) was forming buds in March. I thought it was a bit of a strange time of year to be doing that and now this in early winter…

Partially opened the start of winter? Maybe the plant thinks it's in the Northern Hemisphere!

…and now both she and ‘Charles Joly’ both have buds but both look sick.

'Charles Joly' is budding now too, but has sick looking leaves.

This is usually where I turn to the wonderful world of the internet and some trusted gardening advice sites…but there seems to be an assumption out there that either everyone knows how to grow lilacs, or they are so hardy that they couldn’t possibly be killed. Oh dear. Everyone knows the secrets but me!

I feel quite lost as to what to do and have lots of unanswered questions.  Did I just prune them at the wrong time? Is it normal for them to look like this in winter? Is the white one dying? Is there anything that might help them bounce back?

Any help would be very much appreciated!

Zoned Out

It’s been a bit of a shock to me, but I don’t really know where I live.

Greenish Grass Dart on Golden Everlasting (Bracteantha bracteata)

Well, I do know where I live, but I haven’t really given it the thought a gardener should.

So, for the last couple of weeks ‘Stand’ by R.E.M. has been spining around in my head while I wander around the garden.

Stand in the place where you live

Now face North

Think about direction

Wonder why you haven’t before.

Now stand in the place where you work

Now face West

Think about the place where you live

Wonder why you haven’t before.

The sense of being a little lost has been exacerbated by popping around to various gardening blogs where the resident gardener confidently declares that they live in zone 5b or Zone 2 or maybe in a tropical zone or an arid zone. They all seemed to speak a common language.

Well, that’s ok I thought – I can go and look up my plant hardiness zone then post it to my page and look like I’ve got a clue too. But this time I’ve really bitten off more than I can chew!

The imported Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) on a cucumber flower

As it turns out, there doesn’t seem to be a shared language on plant zones in Australia, at least not in the same sense that gardeners in other parts of the world might be used to. Instead plant hardiness zones seem to be a subject of quite a bit of debate.

If you are confused check with the sun

Carry a compass to help you along

Your feet are going to be on the ground

Your head is there to move you around.

Here is one model, courtesy of the Australian National Botanic Gardens that attempts to develop a system that can be related to that of the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map This Australian model would have my garden in zone 3 which approximates to zone 9 in the US system. So, if I’m reading the map right, similar conditions to parts of Texas, Arizona, Florida, Mexico and, probably not surprisingly, California. We certainly have frequent bushfires in common with that State.

But most Australian information does not seem to refer to a numeric system, and the most commonly used guide seems to be a climatic division of around five zones, based on temperature and humidity However, I’m guessing that those serious about their horticulture take into account a much broader range of measures. Anyway, from this measure I deduce that I live in a temperate zone.

I have also heard my area referred to as a ‘Mediterranean’ zone and I think this is more of an attempt to relate to plant hardiness for the area and give us some clues as to what might do well in the garden. So, plant things that do well in Spain, the South of France and parts of Italy.

A little bee I'm yet to identify, not sure if it's a native species.

Thanks to an earlier post By Nell-Jean at Secrets of a Seed Scatterer I had already done a little homework to try to figure out where in the world I am gardening.

So I do know that I am at Latitude 38 degrees South. This puts me roughly on a line with Rotorua in New Zealand and Los Angeles in Chile. At this latitude I am far enough South to completely miss the African land mass.

How Climate Change impacts all of this is also the subject of great debate. We certainly seem to be getting hotter, drier and more prone to drought and devastating fires. Maybe not so temperate for much longer if the heat stress that my birches are starting to show is any measure.

So stand.

Of course all the above is what I have been able to glean as a naive gardener just starting to dip her toe into all the knowledge that is out there. I am always happy to be corrected and educated by those with wiser heads 🙂

Speaking of which, as the week is drawing to an end (and I’m recovering from my stage fright) I’d like to warmly thank Jodi from Bloomingwriter for featuring my blog as part of her weekly focus on new bloggers. It was delightful to be the recipient of such thoughtfulness and sharing!

January 2010. Time to get things under way!

It’s early January and my garden is overgrown. Again.

The worst of it!

As I was looking for a shady patch to weed without getting sunburnt I started to think about the changes that occur in a garden over a year and how beautiful mine could look, if only I put in the effort. I wondered how I might motivate myself to tidy the lot up properly. Then it occurred to me a blog could help me record both the changes to my garden and motivate me at the same time. If I say I’m going to fix it up and show pictures of it evolving, well, I have to do it don’t I?

An Australian Admiral Butterfly fittingly sitting on a Butterfly Bush.

Hopefully along the way I can snap a few pictures of interesting birds and insects visiting the garden which will help me focus even more on seasonal changes.  I love butterflies and have just started to learn about some of the ones that visit our area, so I’m keen to snap and properly identify those. My daughter loves ladybugs and I’d like to record their visits too.  Sadly last year we didn’t seem to have any visit which I’m hoping was just ‘one of those things’ rather than a marker of permanent change. I also hope  to educate myself about the plants I’ve never bothered to learn the names of along the way too.

So that is the basic plan – a garden on the improve! My aim is eventually to have shady and tranquil retreat from the world.

Currently the garden is very overgrown with weeds, but underneath the weeds are some beautiful flowers and plants. The roses are largely finishing their second flush for the year, but are still coming out with the occasional beautiful bloom. They flowered early in the season last year, so I’m hoping most will have a third flush.

Angel Face Rose

Angel Face Rose

My Green credentials aren’t that great as I do prefer introduced plants to locals, but I don’t tend to water anything unless it looks like it is going to keel over and I don’t use much by way of chemicals. The insects largely seem to balance themselves out and the ducks make pretty good biological control for snails and slugs!

Ducks amongst the weeds!

The ducks amongst the weeds!

The garden is still very green for January, as we’ve had a bit of rain lately, but some very hot weather is predicted soon, so we’ll see how it looks then.

Well, it is more than likely that I will go off topic before too long.  Especially if the gardening isn’t going to plan!