Archives: garden

Mourning trees

At risk of being outed as a tragic old hippy, I’m mourning a tree. Again.

This tree-mourning, I’ve only just realised it even happens. This time, this tree. It wasn’t even a significant tree, or a pretty tree, or even my tree. Just a big, old tree.

My neighbours, I like them, and I think they thought I’d be happy to see it go. Its absence would impress real estate-y types. Our outlook has been, they would say, enhanced. The aspect to the north-east has opened substantially with the tree’s departure. Property values probably up up up. Whoopee.

It was an old pecan, too tall for us to reach any nuts (but the cockatoos could). Some of it was dead, but not all. And when the branches were all stacked on the truck on Saturday, when they were cut and stacked to be taken away, you could see all its little spring buds ready to burst. As it transpires, never to open, but ready anyway. As a deciduous tree, it did us all a favour, keeping a few houses in a row cooler in summer and letting winter sun through.

It’s not the first tree felling to make me sad, but I’ve only just named these individual sadnesses as actual mourning. The old fig up the coast at my folks’ house, the one that cooled and protected a garden and homed birds and bugs and green tree snakes… whole bloody communities of critters. Cut down by its “owner”, and we’re not quite sure why. It’s hot up there now, in that yard.

The common mango in my street.

The big old school fig, 120+ years old, lost in a storm; the same storm took some of the figs down near the river, including the one with the secret cave that my boys and their friends liked to hide in.

The leopard tree at the house I grew up in, planted by one of the first families in the area, maybe the first exotic in Sherwood. I used to look out my bedroom window and watch kingfishers nest in its fork, as a teenager.

The 60-year-old magnolia we lost in a drought.

The 80-year-old banksia, the ancient melealuca, and every other single tree on the block of a house in Yaroomba, cleared for an architect’s ugly folly. (The neighbour’s son used to play on the footpath; it was the only land spare.)

When these big trees go, it’s rare that anyone checks them for nests first, and this makes me sad, too.

Bloody hippy.

 

The common mango

There’s this guy who lives in my street. Called Dutch. Rides a motorbike. Looks like the type of cat who’s already gone through a few of his nine lives. Lives in the front half of a rented place at the bottom of the hill.

Dutch, of course, is not his actual name. I don’t know what name he was given at birth. I asked him once; he laughed at me. I don’t know how long he’s lived in this street: longer than us, probably quite a long time. He’s good for a chat.

Out the front of Dutch’s place was a magnificent gnarly old tree: one of those old-school no-nonsense common mangoes. The kind whose fruit is good for Asian salads and daiquiris, but too stringy to eat straight up, compared to designer mango brands trucked down from FNQ. This tree, a densely canopied beauty whose blossoms cranked the birds, its leaves threw the coolest shade. Dutch, you could tell, Dutch was proud of “his” tree. (It seemed quaintly contra-character, the way he called it “my tree”. Un-tough.) It’s how I met him, originally – I think it’s how half the neighbourhood met him – when one summer I picked my way through the bike parts decorating his front path to ask if I could please pick some of the green fruit to make a salad? It became a summer ritual, picking Dutch’s green mangoes. Heaps of the neighbourhood did it. I made salads (Dutch’s mangoes were always in a salad on our Christmas table); some made pickles. Standing on the footpath outside, I once watched a cheeky Vietnamese woman drive up, park underneath, and unload the branches from the bonnet of her car. Last year, Dutch’s neighbour stood on his own car bonnet to pick late-season fruit for me.

It was Dutch’s conduit to the community. A sweet crack in tough-guy exterior.

And mangoes for all. This year promised to be the best yet: just last month, the tree was so fecund with blossom I stuck a picture of it on Instagram (it wasn’t very good). We were excited. The common mango blossom

Then this week, walking down the street, I become muddled in my bearings. One of those shaky virtual-reality moments slows my feet, and I stop outside a house I can’t quite recognize. The massive old mango has vanished.

Later, I see Dutch, ask what happened. He looks sad. He says he has no idea. Woke one morning and “a couple of tree guys” were on his front lawn. Someone had complained about the tree to his landlord. He didn’t know what sort of complaint. Blossom dropping? Says if they’d just spoken to him, he would have taken some branches off the front if they were in anyone’s way (they weren’t) – it’s what he did each year, just hadn’t got around to it this year. Says he wishes his landlord had spoken to him about it. Says he’s not sure what to plant in its place.

Says, “Why didn’t they just speak to me?”

Says he thinks it might get a bit hot, his house, this summer.

We discuss the tree’s unprecedented blossom this year. Shake our heads. I say I have a frangipani in a pot, if he wants it. The November sun, glaring across his bare front yard, hurts my eyes.

Winter sun

It’s one of those winter mornings when the slanting sunlight is a treasure. Our morning schedule is thrown sideways by the end of school holidays colliding with the 5am World Cup final, so I drop my partner at work over the Victoria Bridge.

We are fortunate to spend a few traffic light changes waiting on the bridge in cross-river traffic. Fortunate because, looking up, we catch miraculous smoke above the Treasury Building. The sun’s rays, angled from the north, grab hold of steam rising from the old building’s vents. The steam twists, throwing rainbow clouds of sunbeams. Refracted? Reflected? It’s like someone’s barbecuing unicorns in the casino below. The spectrum bends in two columns, rainbow clouds.

 

Back home fifteen minutes later, I take last night’s scraps down to the chickens. Turn on the hose. Our lawn is brown. It seems we’re heading back into drought; I’ll just hit the essentials. (Also, the necessity of a full day of work is muscling in on my desire to stand here and dreamily water the garden for an hour.)

The essentials: some seedlings planted on the weekend, the chickens’ water bowl, a transplanted lime, the bird baths. There mustn’t be much water around, because I’ve already been visited this morning by some of the regulars. Common city birds. Timid wattle birds, a young magpie, crows all drink from my garden’s water bowls.

A noisy miner lands on the ancient rose beside the largest bird bath. It’s cool (for our subtropics), but he dives in, rolling around and splashing. He’s bathing with what I imagine as anthropomorphized delight.  Sunlight streams from the north behind him. As the bird moves, drops of water splay, catching beams. Throwing the sun back out over the roses’ bare limbs. Again he dives, rolls, splashes, and returns to his branch. Then back to the water, flapping and shaking, broadcasting gold spray.

It’s too gorgeous.

Crafty

It’s happening. I may be turning into a semi-hipster.

 

It's a craft thing.

It’s a craft thing.

It’s the craft thing, see.

It started with an innocent workshop at the local library.

Crochet your own granny square. I always wanted to do that. There was one space left. And so, braced as I was against an earth-shattering hangover one Saturday, I learned how to crochet (a granny square).

A year later, I have over 60 and I’m still crocheting.

Granny squares

Next, I caught myself planting succulent cuttings in shells.

Shells with succulents

For a while, there was also some baking happening in my life. But we won’t talk about that.

I got craftier.

I bound banksia pods in aged old bamboo steamers, then attached orchids.

Banksia garden art

I hung shell strands from trees. Sketched stuff. Contemplated pom pom pictures.

Then, I found myself googling “How to make a rag rug”.

I may need help.

 

The beeman cometh

 

Tim knows bees

Tim knows bees

 

If West End has the highest occurrence of native bee hives in the country, it’s probably due to Dr Tim Heard.

Tim’s an entomological original: one of the pioneer native bee-keepers who’s been dabbling since the 1980s. He wrote an early article about them in Nature magazine in the 1990s. He’s done time on Gardening Australia.

He’s also keeping an eye on the hives he installs around the neighbourhood. Every year or so, Tim’s “hive crawl” sees amateur bee-people* crowding each other’s verandahs and gardens while Tim demonstrates hive splitting and honey extraction.

Stormtrooper beekeeper

Stormtrooper beekeeper

Last weekend, we were fortunate to have Tim attend to our back deck hive, with a swathe of spectators in tow. (We’d amassed a dozen or so curious kids from around the neighbourhood, too.) Stingless bees don’t sting, but they do give you a little nip if they’re really testy. As soon as the hive was disturbed, the little blighters started swarming. You could tell the blokes who’d done this before. They were the ones wearing hats.

The kids hanging around soon dispersed. Many took souvenir bee pets away in their hair. My youngest found a creative way to stay bee-free, while indulging his Star Wars thing.

*I’m trying to avoid the terms “apiary” and “apiarist”. These terms are derived from “Apis”, which is the scientific term for the honeybee species. “Trigona” and “Austroplebiea” are the genera that Australian stingless bees fall under. In case you were wondering.

 

Robbing the hive

We started with the honey. Tim prised the top layer off the three-tiered hive. This is where the bees have constructed their honeycomb: it’s food storage for the hive.

Bees store honey "pods" in this top layer.

Bees store honeycomb in this top layer.

In our case, sadly, the bees had also added a bit too much pollen, so our honey was deemed “not ideal”.

Pricking the honeycomb

Pricking the honeycomb

The honeycomb — the wax pots holding the honey — was pricked with a sinister-looking device: it’s like a scrubbing brush whose bristles have been replaced by nails. The whole layer was then inverted over a wide container so that the honey could drain out, while we focussed on splitting the hive.

Pollen tastes ok when it’s first been smashed, but too much doesn’t make  lovely honey. It’s chewy. The honey resting around the edges of the hive is nicer. You lick that stuff up on your fingers for hours.

When the honey had drained from this first honeycomb pressing, Tim strained it again into a container. (When he’d left, I passed it through butter muslin, twice.) It’s not too sweet, tasting a little smoky, a little fruity. I’ve left it a couple more days, and have noticed pollen has risen to the top. I’ll separate it again, to get really pure honey, but this is probably overkill.

We ended up with about half a kilo of honey, which Tim said was not much.

 

Splittsville

Our hive was nearly 2 years old, and heavy, man. It was ready to split.

First, the middle layer was carefully removed. Usually, the advancing front (the top layer of the brood’s spiralling structure) would have filled up into this section, and the hive could be split across these two sections. However, our brood was still mainly in the bottom section, surrounded by pollen and honey structures. Tim had to slice a section out, and physically rest it into the new hive box. This box was then placed upside down (so the brood didn’t collapse) in the old hive’s position. We’ll turn it over in about three months, when the bees have created enough structure to support it.

The other hive sat on a chair for a day while we figured out where to put it. (We probably should have planned ahead.) The next night, we put it in the front garden. We did this after sunset, when the bees were inside.

Since the split, we’ve had what the kids call bee wars around the hive on the back deck. This is when another swarm comes and fights your swarm. I’m not sure why; I’ll email the bee man and ask.

Bee swarm

Bee wars

 

Check out Tim’s videos on hive architecture, splitting hives, and extracting honey.

You can also find Tim at his website.

Garden update

The tabebuia is on its way out, sadly, but together with the wisteria, it has reliably heralded spring again. I’m making a little peace with Walter the turkey, but not much. I’ve thwarted his orchid-wrenching by repotting the ones he’s scattered in hanging baskets. His taste for heliconia roots is getting on my nerves, and in my pots, too.

My strawberries are magnificent, little bolts of sweetness, and I refuse to get into a macho discussion about their size with my 6-year-old neighbour. (His may be bigger, but we all know that’s not everything.) Peas ripped out, along with the lettuce that went all bitter in this ghastly dry spell. (It’s still trying so so hard to rain. But not.)

Won’t be long till it’s time for chickens. Just waiting for the carpenter fairy to arrive and create something out of all the raw material that’s waiting at the end of the garden. The hoarder I live with has acquired an old concrete sink. What to put in it? I’m thinking a bog garden with arum lilies, but don’t know how they’ll go in the shade. Or if they’ll be ok next to the chooks.

Next jobs: bananas, a garden down the side, plant out a block of corn, and all the usual maintenance.

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