Handy hints

Sunday, 09 November 2014

Dahlias thrive on tomato food

When I was a kid, a kind neighbour used to occasionally give us piles of what in those days were called 'women's magazines', full of recipes, knitting patterns, gardening advice and handy hints for all sorts of household problems, sent in by readers. For some reason, I particularly adored reading the handy hints page. The idea of someone sharing some homespun secret to removing beetroot stains from a white shag carpet, for example (this was the 1970s, after all), seemed incredibly generous to me. I think it was the idea of a whole body of arcane knowledge being handed on that I found compelling.

Sharing is one of the fundamentally appealing aspects of the whole gardening experience, I have found. Gardeners are amazingly generous people, and the fact that a cutting, quickly snapped from a shrub or perennial and handed to a friend, can grow into a whole new plant gives gardeners a means of expressing their generosity. So it is with gardening knowledge. Whilst we can learn a lot from books, magazines and websites, so much of what we understand about plants and gardening comes to us from our fellow gardeners - sometimes information passed onto them from other enthusiasts; at other times as a result of their own experimentations with their plants and gardens.

I always aim to write down every handy hint I receive from other gardeners in a notebook. Some of them I act on straightaway; in other cases, it may be years before I do anything about it. But each piece of advice adds to the growing body of understanding of how plants and gardens work for those of us who haven't studied horticulture professionally.

Citrus trees are attacked by the bronze orange bug at this time of year

Just in this past week, I have gleaned a variety of handy hints! At the moment, I am interested in organic methods of pest control, so I was fascinated to hear of people I know actually vacuuming those really horrid 'stink bugs' (bronze orange bugs) from their citrus trees with an old vacuum cleaner! These pests can cause serious damage to the young shoots and immature fruits of all citrus, and are most prolific in October and November. Another method I heard of is to knock them off the branches with a stick so they fall into a bucket of hot water. Goggles and long-sleeved clothing need to be worn during these activities, as the bugs squirt a caustic fluid when disturbed that can be dangerous, especially to the eyes. It is a good idea to get on top of the bugs at the first sign of them in their green nymph stage. Spraying with Eco-Oil regularly from winter onwards can provide control or pyrethrum can be used.

Begonia Sophie Cecile in the garden of Margaret Chedra in Sydney

Another interesting hint I learned this week was to feed Begonia plants with rose food for best blooming. It certainly seemed to be effective in the garden of the hint-giver, where Begonia flower profusely almost all year round. This same gardener had made me aware a few years ago of the value of growing Begonia in our Sydney gardens, as they do so well and flower for so long. Another tip I received recently was to feed Dahlia and Alstroemeria plants with a tomato food for lots of flowers. Yet another gardener, with a lush tropical garden, explained that she foliar-feeds her plants with a mix of Seasol and soluble fertiliser every fortnight. With all this good advice on fertilising, I realised guiltily that I don't feed my plants enough and that anything I give them has to be an improvement!

Hosta growing in a pot in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

In another garden I visited this week, I learned that Hosta are best grown in pots, as conditions for these shade- and moisture-loving plants can be better controlled when they are container-grown, and their sculptured leaves are shown off better too. From this gardener I had previously learned that Clematis plants need to be given at least one bucket of water a day and that the worthwhile Fuchsia hybrids for Sydney's climate are those that grow in full sun and are as tough as nails, flowering for months on end.

Cymbidium orchid in the garden of my sister Holly in Sydney

From my parents many years ago, I found out that making a using compost is the key to a good garden, by building up the organic matter in soil. From my sister, I discovered that the keys to getting Cymbidium orchids to bloom are plenty of sun from May to September and a regular feeding program with special orchid food. Other good tips I have garnered over the years include the use of a mixture of hydrated coir peat and perlite as a propagating medium for striking cuttings; the idea of dipping cuttings in honey so they strike better; that daylily foliage can be cut to the ground several times a year when it looks ratty or is infested with aphids and it will regrow fresh leaves; and that many bromeliads and orchids can be grown in trees. Throwing an old sheet over a Hydrangea can protect its blooms during a heatwave; a large upturned empty pot put over a newly transplanted specimen gives it some much-needed shelter if the move was done in the hotter months rather than at the right time in autumn or winter - I seem to be always doing this.

Gardening is a never-ending learning process, and our fellow gardeners are often our teachers of gardening lore as well as the providers of many of the best plants in our plots. I'd love to hear of your favourite gardening tip!

Reader Comments

  • By Robin 2121 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Very interesting hints, Deirdre! Thank you for those pearls of gardening wisdom. On the subject of hostas, I was told and have found that growing hostas in terracotta pots works best. That is a good point and I do grow all mine in terracotta pots. Thanks, Robin. Deirdre

  • By Ann 2029 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Are there any hints for getting peonies to flower profusely? Mine (in Goulburn) have been in for 4-5 years and only have one or two flowers. I have not attempted to grow them in Sydney as I think I would be doomed to failure, but if you ever get a chance to visit the garden Chinoisserie at Mittagong, you can see them growing wonderfully and I am sure the owner could give you some tips. I think it is open this month. Deirdre

  • By barbara 2086 Monday, 10 November 2014

    I so enjoy all your website- so easy to use with a wealth of information for beginners in the garden to the real experts. I"m more a beginner and am so very delighted to have found your site. It so helps keep my "garden dreams" not only, alive, but being put into action. What a lovely garden "angle" you are. Thanks for sharing your love of gardening. Thanks so much, Barbara. Deirdre

  • By Alain 4370 Monday, 10 November 2014

    A good way to get rid of flea beetles,a pest to potatoes, eggplant, capsicum, is to sprinkle diatomite powder on the foliage and on the surrounding ground. Eco and not poisonous. Works a treat, I would like to try this as the flea beetle is one of my main enemies. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Wonderful hints from gardeners, thank you for sharing them with us. Another one to add, perhaps. Using peat and flowers of sulphur to obtain a blue hydrangea, really works. Thanks, Margaret. That is a great tip. Deirdre

  • By Kate 2070 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Turkeys! I keep a roll of plastic trellis mesh (available in a roll for about $20 in the garden/hardware stores - about 50cm wide and a few metres in length) with some small wooden or bamboo stakes and with some old panty hose or fleece ties. The mesh is easily cut into lengths and can surround, and form a temporary light cover over a precious bed of seedlings, mulch or freshly dug soil that the darned turkeys seem to love to redistribute - often too early in the morning to catch them at it. That is an ingenious method, Kate. I have not had any of the turkeys in my garden for quite a few weeks now, for some reason. I have heard there have been some foxes around, so maybe they have been getting the turkeys. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Monday, 10 November 2014

    some good hints in there thanks Deirdre. will try that with the begonias - which I need to move - put in totally wrong place when I brought them down here from Sydney and have lost a lot. Good luck with the begonias, Anne. Deirdre

  • By Marianne 2067 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Another hint for dealing with stink bugs. One cup of dishwashing liquid, two cups of sunflower oil, shake well. Two tablespoons of the mixture to 1 litre of water. Spray. This way no need to handle them. Thanks for this idea. I will try it. Deirdre

  • By Coco 2041 Monday, 10 November 2014

    I wear a plastic glove and pick the stink bugs off, putting them into a plastic bag. I wear eye protection.. This works well for me but my lemon tree is not very tall so easy to reach everything. Thanks for all the other hints too, I love reading them! You are pretty brave doing that but it is probably the most thorough method. My lemon tree is too tall and needs pruning! Deirdre

  • By Gil 2037 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Eye protection is certainly essential with the citrus bugs. They shoot from the rear and their aim is unerring! I spent a very uncomfortable 24 hours one year. I found the vacuum cleaner effective if you don"t mind the scent in the machine for a few weeks. That sounds an unpleasant experience. Several of my friends seem to have dedicated old vacuum cleaners just for the stink bugs! Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Many thanks for the reminders Deirdre. We keep an old vacuumn cleaner especially for vacuuming stink bugs from our kaffir lime which, I might add, is growing happily again after the rat attacks of last summer. Yes, some friends do the same with an old vacuum cleaner. Glad your kaffir lime is going well. The stink bugs have really attacked my Tahitian lime this year. Deirdre

  • By Rebecka 2481 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Thanks Diedre. It took me a three years of experimenting to work out how to grow dark gardenias (that have deep, dark-green, NOT YELLOW) leaves and that also boast a profusion of big milky flowers. 5 MUSTS: Grow them in Al"s 511 mix (people can google that, you make it yourself), water daily, fed them regularly with 1bs vinegar and 1tbs epsom salts in a 9L bucket of water, feed them in spring with azalea granular fert). Great tips! I have used the Epsom salts but not the other things. Will try! Deirdre

  • By chris 2029 Monday, 10 November 2014

    Does anyone know how to get rid of (or at least very actively discourage!) mole crickets from a lawn?? It looks like I have been invaded by gophers... HELP!

  • By Janna 0 Monday, 10 November 2014

    When I moved to Sydney I was told by a TV gardening presentor that lemons grew so well in Sydney that every garden should have one. What with stink bugs, leaf miner, snails, scale and possums, I do have to question that citrus are well suited to Sydney. They are presumably somewhat stressed to succumb to all these pests. I really wonder if we should rethink planting them in all but the absolute perfect soils and aspect. There do seem a lot of issues with citrus but I do have friends who spray Eco-oil on the trees every few weeks and that seems to control a lot of the problems in a low-toxic way. I do think that feeding them well and keeping the water up to them makes them more resilient in some ways but possums and cockatoos are an ongoing problem! Deirdre

  • By Norm 2046 Tuesday, 11 November 2014

    Great garden site Deirdre. As most terracotta pots recently seem to have one large hole in bottom, which potting mix tends to fall through, I use effectively cut pieces of plastic gutter guard (costs about $3 for an 8 metre roll at Bunnings) as a "crock". This works a treat maintaining good drainage in the pot, lasts forever and can even be re-used. Thanks for this hint, Norm. Deirdre

  • By Val 5453 Saturday, 15 November 2014

    Diatomaceous earth also works effectively to keep earwigs from eating new seedlings. Just sprinkle a circle round the newly planted seedling. Val Thanks, Val. I definitely want to try this stuff. Deirdre

  • By Dee 5171 Wednesday, 26 November 2014

    Banana skins (preferably organic) soaked in a bucket of water then diluted 1:2 make a great potassium tonic for plants like tomatoes. Have never heard of this one, though my parents used to put banana skins at the back of staghorn ferns that were mounted on boards. Will try your hint. Deirdre

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