Sunday, 25 February 2007

Definition of a Weed

Surveying my backyard here, I've identified a number of weeds that will have to go: English ivy, English holly, blackberries, broom, buddleia. But a brochure entitled "Weeds of Blue Mountains Bushland" suggests that I've got more problem plants to deal with than I thought. Cotoneaster is one, particularly C. franchetii and so is Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa). The dogwood, Cornus capitata, that I was initially delighted to have turns out to be invasive here, as is Prunus padus, the Bird Cherry. The latter is aptly named, attracting King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas to our garden, as well as smaller, less brilliant birds like honeyeaters and mynahs. Trouble is, the birds then disperse the seeds in the surrounding bushland and the resulting seedlings rapidly displace native plants.
Being a responsible gardener, I will get around to having all these thugs removed, which will leave me with some rather nondescript hydrangeas and not much else. Still, there are some gorgeous Grevilleas and Banksias that I can plant instead, and a range of non-invasive "exotics", including roses, that I can grow without guilt.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

What Australians Do Well

After complaining in my last post, I thought I'd better compensate by listing a few of the things that I like here. Olive oil, for example. Australians have taken in a big way to planting olive trees as a cash crop since I last lived here. The result is that every supermarket has a wide array of beautiful local olive oils on the shelves at very reasonable prices.The ones infused with lemon zest are particularly delicious and make great vinaigrettes for dressing salads. Local olives are good too, though sometimes expensive.
Wine vinegars are another local specialty, not surprising in a country with so many vineyards. And wine itself of course is readily available in large supermarket-like stores that stock hundreds of Australian labels, everything from cleanskins (harsh but incredibly cheap no-name brands) to the hundred-dollar-plus classics like Penfold's Grange Hermitage, Australia's most prestigious wine.
Cheese-making has become a big cottage industry, with many little dairies vying for a piece of the market. Some, like the prized products from King Island in Tasmania, command high prices, but there are lots of more modest types to try, including very good goat cheese, often packed in oil and herbs in the mediterranean style.

Although the Australian government did not sign the Kyoto agreement, there's considerable interest and concern among individuals in reducing the country's ecological footprint. One example is a major initiative to reduce the number of plastic bags that everyone uses. At all supermarkets and many smaller stores you can buy for $1 a reuseable fabric bag to put your purchases in. Most people have several of these and, as they fold flat, they can be stuffed into a large pocket or kept in the glovebox or trunk of the car. In some areas of Sydney, there's such a stigma now attached to accepting plastic bags that people would rather buy another cloth bag, even if they have dozens of them at home, than be seen with the scorned plastic ones.
Other levels of government are taking the initiative too. Our local council offers compost bins at reasonable rates. If you agree to replace your large council-supplied garbage can with a smaller one, the price of the composter is reduced even further. Worm farms are also on offer and the council runs workshops on how to use them.
Most of the state governments give rebates on the cost of rainwater tanks to homeowners who install them, and subsidize the replacement of old light bulbs with compact fluorescents.
So far, large gas-guzzling cars are much less in evidence than in North America. This is partly because Australia has always imported the majority of its vehicles from Asia and Europe, but it may also have something to do with the fact that roads are narrow by North American standards. Lanes on some of the older highways are so narrow that driving requires constant attention. It's just as well that only hands-free phones are permitted in cars. My niece, who is just learning to drive tells me that if you remove a hand from the wheel during your test, you fail. (Needless to say, she's learning on an automatic, but I have to wonder whether that applies to adjusting your outside mirrors or the sun visor.) Oh yes, and the limit for breathalyser tests is .05, almost half the Canadian limit, so designated drivers are very much in evidence at parties and restaurants.
Fender benders are less common because you can't turn a near corner on a red light unless there's a sign specifically permitting it.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Sugar, Sugar everywhere

What is it with Australians and sugar ? A Queensland sugar cane crop that they have to use up, perhaps? Whatever the reason, sugar seems to be an essential ingredient of so many staples. Mayonnaise, for instance. I have combed the supermarket shelves to find one without it, but the best I could come up with was one containing honey instead. At the local food co-op, which specialises in organic and health food, I found fat-free mayonnaise, no-egg mayonnaise and non-dairy (soy) mayonnaise, but no sugarless mayonnaise. Guess I'll have to go back to making my own, easy enough but expensive as I'll have to buy a food processor first.
It's the same with peanut butter. Unsalted? Several choices, in both smooth and chunky. Reduced fat content? No problem. Sugar-free? Sorry, that would be un-Australian!
At least someone has seen the light when it comes to fruit juice. Twenty years ago, you couldn't get that either without added sugar, but now there seems to be a number of brands offering pure juice. Perhaps if I wait another generation, the other products will follow suit.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

The Perfect Present

A bit late for Christmas now, but I saw this ad in a newspaper supplement in December and thought my gardening friends in Vancouver would be interested in an opportunity to buy their own little Wollemi pine, complete with little red pot, a certificate of authenticity, and instructions on care. I believe National Geographic is in charge of marketing it in North America. My friend Carolyn Jones, Director of the Miller garden in Seattle, tells me she has ordered and received a specimen. I believe Cindy Sayre at VanDusen is acquiring one as well.
I bought one in a local shop to give to my sister as a birthday present. Cost: AU$60 (about C$55). Once I have my garden here in hand, I'll get one too. Wollemi National Park is not far from where we are living so it should have a good chance of success. I imagine it will survive in the Vancouver area, as the valley where it was discovered is in a part of the Blue Mountains that is cold enough to get occasional snow. According to the care instructions, it can be kept in a pot which will restrict its growth. Planted in the garden it will grow into a sizeable tree.
It was good fortune that the original trees were discovered when they were, as the area was ravaged by bushfires in December, although I've seen no confirmation in the newspapers as to whether the particular valley where they grow was affected.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

New home

Finally, after two months of being nomads, we have a home again. We are living in the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. The Blue Mountains have been designated a World Heritage Site, in part because they are home to 103 different species of eucalypts. They are also an area of great natural beauty, not really "mountains" by Canadian standards, but ancient sandstone and basalt plateaux. Sheer cliffs fall away into leafy valleys and the air is indeed blue, largely from the sun striking particles of dust and moisture, a phenomenon known as Rayleigh scattering, but here magnified by the volatile oils of eucalyptus that the forests give off on sunny days.
The trees around our home are mostly eucalyptus but there are also some huge pines that are a popular perch for the many sulphur-crested cockatoos that live in the mountains. Other birds that we see and hear on a regular basis include black cockatoos, crimson rosellas, king parrots and an assortment of honeyeaters. At sunrise or sunset, we may be lucky enough to see a small wallaby grazing in the vacant lot next door.
Our property is really a set of three apartments, built in 1936 when this area was just beginning to become a tourist mecca. There are two mirror-image apartments at street level, and, as the lot falls away steeply towards a ravine, there's a third one tucked beneath the back of the upper two. In spite of being one floor down, it is still well above ground level, with enough room for a laundry and storage space below it at the back garden level. All three apartments have beautiful stained-glass windows, high ceilings, picture rails, fireplaces and decorative plaster ceilings in the main rooms. Our plan is to keep the amiable long-term tenant in one of the upstairs apartments, live in the other and, after some necessary bathroom renovations, rent the lower unit by the week to visitors, of whom there are many as Katoomba is a centre for tourists and bushwalkers.
The garden, though obviously once cared for, is sadly over-run with English ivy and self-seeded buddleia, holly and blackberries. Among our immediate tasks will be removing these thugs and freeing the hydrangeas, pelargoniums (perennials in this climate), a Cootamundra wattle and a Chinese dogwood that are struggling to survive. Once that is done. I can start to choose plants to enhance these existing ones. I'm looking forward to finding some Australian native shrubs to add, particularly some of the pretty Leptospermums (waxflowers), but there'll also be room for some of my old favourites, maybe even a rose or two!