Plunge your hands into the soil

Since I started volunteering in the Food Garden of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, then in another that keeps an elderly person living on their own property, plus working in my own garden more intensively, I have never felt better.  The easy reason is that I am out in the fresh air, being physically active, have a purpose, constantly learn new information which stimulates my brain, and interact with a range of people. Now I know there is another reason. Science has discovered we can have a helping hand.

When reading a recent issue of Gardening Australia I was enlightened by an article extolling the benefits of Mycobacterium Vaccae. Have you heard of this bacterium?  I hadn’t.

The article might interest you –  it might provide another tool for you to consider when trying to improve all aspects of your health.

For those of us who grew up in times when playing in the dirt as children was normal (even if your mother yelled at you ‘not to get your clothes dirty’), I suspect we might have built up some immunity by coming into contact with the bacterium mentioned in this article. For those who garden, even if only in pots on a balcony or indoor pot plants, I would like to believe all can be beneficial. These days I feel very little stress. Even through the high intensity period associated with Covid 19 I have floated along much more easily than I used to. Whether it is gardening and the contact with that bacterium I don’t know – but something is working for some reason and I am glad of it.  If you are not plunging your hands into the soil from time to time (without gloves), perhaps you will consider it now.

And another thing: Apparently ‘the bacterium was first discovered on the shores of Lake Kyoga in Uganda in the 1970s by immunologist John Stanford after recognizing that people who lived in the area responded better to certain leprosy vaccines. They later realized that the bacterium found in the lakeshore soil had immune-modulating properties that were enhancing the vaccine’s efficacy.’ Read more here. Makes one think! Will the bacterium in our soils enhance the efficacy of any vaccine we might have?  Let’s plunge our hands into the soil.

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Maybe an unwanted Harlequin Ladybird

In response to my recent blog posts on ladybirds, friend Mary sent me a photo of a couple she found in her garden. 

I set out to identify these and would like to think they are the Harmonia conformis also known as the Large Spotted Ladybird. This was the ladybird which prompted my research when I found one in my own garden recently.

If my identification is incorrect, could this be the invasive unwanted ladybird known as the Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)? You can read more in a June 2019 article here. The article implies the insect has not yet arrived onshore in Australia so perhaps a different identification is warranted. When I read that story I was more alarmed. I continued to research and discovered that the Harlequin Ladybird is now a pest in Western Australia (read here). Alas.

For so long, perhaps you are like me and have romanticised the ladybird and never given a thought to the possibility that one species could turn rogue. Any thoughts?  Any findings in your own garden?

Mary sent the following newspaper article published in the local newspaper The Mercury in 1996.

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Purslane-portulaca oleracea

I have been prompted by an article published in the ABC’s Gardening Australia magazine.  When I read the options for using this plant in meals, and understood the nutrient content within the Portaluca oleracea plant, commonly known as Purslane and thought of as a weed, I felt compelled to grow it. 

I do not have this weed in my garden and haven’t seen one in the neighbourhood so I asked members of Permaculture Tas and the Tasmanian Weed Group via their Facebook sites if someone could give me a plant.  Then within hours I received an email newsletter from a Victorian gardener who extolled the virtues of Purslane.  It seemed I was meant to focus on this weed. To my surprise, after a week I now own a couple of plants.  Last Thursday in the Food Garden at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens we were given seedlings of Purslane to plant and when there were a couple left over, I was offered these . An unexpected windfall but obviously meant to be.

The Australian Natives Plants Society says ‘The species was well known to the early settlers who often used the juicy leaves in salads and, cooked, as a substitute for spinach. The seeds are also edible and are usually ground and baked into a damper.’ My plan is to grow my plants then create breads, omelettes, salads and other meals to share with my RTBG colleagues – with both my fellow volunteers and the paid staff with whom I work.  Then they will be in a better position to explain to visitors how this plant can be accepted in their gardens as a useful plant and no longer a pesty weed.

Here is a recipe for potato and purslane salad you might like to try.

So what is all my fuss about for a plant that is sometimes referred to as Pigweed (not to be confused with Pigface – Carpobrotus rossii)?  Healthline tells us ‘Purslane is a green, leafy vegetable that can be eaten raw or cooked. It has a slightly sour or salty taste, similar to spinach and watercress. It can be used in many of the same ways as spinach and lettuce, such as in salads or sandwiches. It is also high in many nutrients. A 100 gram (3.5 oz) portion contains

  • Vitamin A (from beta-carotene): 26% of the DV.
  • Vitamin C: 35% of the DV.
  • Magnesium: 17% of the DV.
  • Manganese: 15% of the DV.
  • Potassium: 14% of the DV.
  • Iron: 11% of the DV.
  • Calcium: 7% of the RDI.
  • It also contains small amounts of vitamins B1, B2, B3, folate, copper and phosphorus.

You get all of these nutrients with only 16 calories! This makes it one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, calorie for calorie.’ In addition, Purslane is rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids and this is something we normally get from oily fish such as salmon.

This site notes: ‘While many Portulacas are native to countries other than Australia, Pigweed is one species that does herald from the land Down Under.ABC NEWS explains ‘Purslane is high in Omega 3 and has been the subject of much scientific research for this reason. This is a weed high in oxalic acid, so keep your quantities small.’  I understand the message – the quantity of purslane must be restrained.  In the months to come when I start cooking with this plant, I will include the recipes in a blog so you can feel safe when you prepare your own meals with this plant.

If you want to know more about Portaluca oleracea the University of New England has produced a 12 page booklet which can be read here.

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RTBG-Thursday 28 January 2021

It is a testament to how well our team of Food Garden volunteers work in the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG). On  Thursday when our Co-ordinator was away we simply got to work and achieved a great deal – with the oversight and option for help from RTBG staff  from other sections of the Gardens if we needed it.

Last week most of my RTBG blog post was devoted to the giant pumpkins. I received a lot of comments from this; so I realise that an update is required.

Last week the pumpkins looked as follows:

This past Thursday they had put on weight.

I am continually disturbed by visitors to the RTBG feeling entitled to pick and eat produce intended for the homeless and disadvantaged people, and otherwise to change things. One of the very heavy giant pumpkins has been moved during the past few days (no mean feat because two people might almost break their backs moving it) so that it appears to have fallen on its stalk. Just like an umbilical cord, that stalk feeds the growing giant. So we will wait for a week to see if that move has killed the pumpkin or whether by some fluke it will go on living and growing.

For readers who are curious to know which plants were dug in and the other activities for the day, read on. They were varied. Tony harvested produce for charity. Sandra and Neil prepared beds and planted corn and chilli plants – although Tony suggested it might be a smidgin late for the chillis. So I will wait and watch with interest hoping they make it to full term and fruits appear.

At length Lesley soaked the plants in ceramic pots in order to help them survive the hot weather and then she generally hosed other garden beds. 

Robyn planted purslane and dill in the bed with rogue self-seeded buckwheat plants. 

She and I both weeded various patches and picked up fallen immature fruits and added these to the compost.

Sandra collected fallen hazelnuts, almost all of which were green and not ripe for consumption.

Neil  trimmed and pruned the jump-over apple trees.

Andrew climbed the ladder to cut the skyward bound branches growing from the arched apple trees. 

Superb achievements much talked about by visitors during the day. A very productive day full of change in the RTBG Food Garden.

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A Tasmanian Ladybird

Recently I published a post introducing the topic of ladybirds. Since then I have been vigilant when out in my garden.

Yesterday I saw another type of Ladybird: this time the examples were found on two different trees located some distance from each other. On my pear tree and on my cherry tree. Both plants have the soft squishy larvae of the ‘pear slug’ eating their way through the leaves before they morph into Sawflies, so I imagine it is the eggs of this insect that the ladybirds are eating. Thank you ladybirds – but please eat more!

To identify this ladybird, first I revisited the Gardening Australia magazine article. Alas – this ladybird wasn’t shown nor described. Then I went to the CSIRO’s comprehensive listing of the ladybirds but with so many words rather than images to choose from it seemed too slow.  I googled and found a useful New Zealand website. The photos on this site show ‘my’ ladybirds (Cleobora mellyi), and the accompanying text explains this is a native Tasmanian Ladybird. Of the three top photos in The Atlas of Living Australia, my ladybirds looked like the one on the bottom left with the bright yellow base on which a connected line of black ‘spots’ zigzags across the shell. It interests me that in none of the descriptions should these ladybirds be feeding on my exotic trees – it seems the ladybirds were designed for eucalypt trees but have developed a taste for the insects of my fruit trees.

Which Ladybirds have you found in your garden and have you been able to make an identification?

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RTBG-Thursday 21 January 2021

Pam picked me up and while travelling to the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) we discussed how we wanted to continue to learn and that this fact was a significant driver in taking us to the Food Garden of the RTBG on Thursdays. So what did I do and what did I learn this past Thursday. 

Adjacent to our “Patch”, Hearing Australia had set up to offer hearing checks and be ready to talk to visitors about hearing options – so we stopped and chatted.

Activities: I weeded all day, some of my fellow volunteers did the same, while others removed dead vegetable remnants, scraggly banana leaves, trimmed pumpkin runners, pruned salvias and tied up sprawling tomato plants.

As usual Tony picked fresh produce ready to distribute to charity and one of Adam’s job was to rotary hoe a veggie patch.

It was the giant pumpkins that were my education tool in a number of ways.

None of these were full term and all had a long way to go before being sufficiently mature for picking. One had been punctured so this was cut from the plant. We were curious to see what was happening inside and whether, in that early state of growth, it was edible.

Once cut, clearly the interior was pale yellow in colour. An undifferentiated tissue. In the centre the barest hint of forming seeds could be seen. Water rose to the cut surfaces and I realised this was a hump of liquid. I cut small pieces and, when we ate these, they were refreshing but without flavour. We all hate waste and discussed whether one of us would take this ‘ball’ that was roughly the size and weight of a medicine ball, home for cooking. But, in the absence of any flavour and with its high water content, I couldn’t imagine making any good use from it. So it was ‘ripe’ for the compost!  Now I know what an immature pumpkin looks like and why it is worth waiting for ripening.

I have been astounded at the rapid growth of these pumpkins and the size they are now swelling out to. On the 21st October last year the flowering brassicas were cleared from the garden and it was made ready for the new plants.

The following week, on the 29th October the pumpkins were planted.

On the 19th November Neil noted: “The row with the giant pumpkins was given a light weeding and several loads of compost were deposited.  A variety of corn seed was planted by R & A into these newly composted beds in between the Atlantic Giant pumpkins.”

By the 3rd December last year the pumpkins had reached the size shown below.

On the 15th January this yearLesley told me ‘Neil and I got to select 2 pumpkins per giant pumpkin plant and cut the longest stems back from taking over the sweet corn nearby. Then we weeded around the pumpkin’.

Last Thursday the size was astounding.  Early in the morning I walked the length of this patch marvelling at the scale of each plant in all their aspects. Because extra fledgling pumpkins has been removed in recent weeks, all the goodness now focused on, what was known as, the Number one and then the  Number two pumpkins on each plant.

Later in the day, Number one pumpkins were lifted onto a sheet of cardboard placed on top of a wooden pallet in order to prevent rotting in future weeks. Hopefully, by being lifted off the ground, the pumpkins will be sufficiently aerated. Number two pumpkins will get future lifts.

Elsewhere in the Food Garden other smaller varieties of pumpkins flourished.

The corn was leaping high.

The Zucchini plants looked healthy.

A few hazelnuts were picked but generally these were found not quite ready for harvest.

The serious delight for the day was seeing sunflowers with inflorescences across their entire span.

In a different patch, on what I saw as ‘normal’ looking sunflowers, seeds were forming.

The Food Garden is a place of joy and learning and, if you have never  visited or haven’t been for ages, and particularly if you live in southern Tasmania, I urge you to go and have a look. Please note that the produce is not for picking by visitors, so even though a berry or a bean or apricot or whatever looks ready for you to eat, it isn’t for you.  Remember all this produce is committed to be given to the charity Second Bite.

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Spots in the landscape

Every day I realise the extent of my ignorance, especially ignorance about the natural world around me -and particularly within Tasmania which I often assume I know best. When recently I read the January issue of ABC’s Gardening Australia magazine I discovered there was more than one type of ladybird, that wonderful tiny insect with which most people would be familiar. I had never stopped to think that those tiny beings with their spotted backs might have a family with difference. 

So I studied the article and went out into my garden to find some spotted beings and then to see if I could identify them.  At the end of a day I found only one, although I have seen many on various plants over recent weeks – and yes, if you know the food preference of many species, I have aphids on some plants which is wonderful tucker for ladybirds.

I found a glossy example of the Large Spotted Ladybird Harmonia conformis walking around under a leaf. When I looked closely and thoughtfully, I could see the black spots were positioned in a straight line diagonally across the back, over a glistening orange red base. From now on I will be vigilant for ladybirds and I am curious to discover whether I have more than one type in my garden. If I do, I will want to determine whether specific ladybirds prefer one plant over another.

So, despite my level of ignorance being reduced, I have much to learn. I hope this blog post and the magazine article will inspire you to look at ladybirds near you and identify their differences.

Recently a friend told me her daughter has a garden and ‘she just stood back and let nature do her work, after finding aphids in the garden and reading that ladybirds prey on them. And to her amazement, it worked.’

After ‘my’ discoveries of the south west of Tasmania (written up over recent weeks in this blog), the Tarkine and the Derwent and much more around Tasmania, the tiny world of lady birds may seem minor and unworthy of recording.  I have introduced their story because they are part of the integrated and rich environment which sustains us all.

The CSIRO has a website dedicated to ladybirds and you can see and read more here. If you dig around on this site you will find ladybirds from elsewhere in the world. Fascinating. So decorative.

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RTBG – Thursdays in the new year

Weeks have passed since I last wrote about the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) and what was happening in the Food Garden. On the first Thursday of this month some of the team bounded into the Food Garden happily ready to do a day’s volunteering; Lesley told me ‘Neil and I got to select 2 pumpkins per giant pumpkin plant and cut the longest stems back from taking over the sweet corn nearby. Then we weeded around the pumpkins and planted 2 new silver beet beds with Janet. Sorry no photos I had to rush off…’ Thanks for the news. Last Thursday Pam recorded the activities and noted ‘Lots of work removing all the oxalis today’. For most gardeners, oxalis is a terrifyingly difficult weed to eradicate, however it has its virtues and more can be read here. I have been promising to make an oxalis soup and perhaps it is time for me to act, and share.

Pam thoughtfully sent me the following photos which show the volunteering efforts in a portion of this very productive garden.

Many thanks to the contributors to this blog post.

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The grand achievement of 2020

On a number of occasions last year, long term blog followers read (for example read here) about Chorus Master June Tyzack leading the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra chorus out of the restricting mental and sometimes physical spaces associated with the Covid virus pandemic. Now, after weeks of exchanges associated with copyright clearances and much more, I am delighted that access has finally been given to us all, to see and hear members of the Chorus singing. The music is sensationally emotional and the singing rich and powerful, the more so because we see some of the most wonderful landscapes which Tasmania has to offer. Please enjoy this video – and turn up the volume until you cry with the beauty of it all. Then share it with friends.

I am immensely proud of my sister and all the chorus members.  Thank you.

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A trip to South West Tasmania- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner-26 of 26

In the early 1800s Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which could be read at face value concerning a ship voyage or you might construe the poem as a metaphor for other ideas. Regardless, and while the poem is worth reading for its own sake, it will alert you also to some of our routinely heard expressions which I now realise derive from Coleridge’s original word concoctions. For example,

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.


Ah! well a-day! what evil looks

Had I from old and young!

Instead of the cross, the Albatross

About my neck was hung.

On the Windeward Bound we didn’t sail through snow, nor did we feed or kill an albatross but the sun followed similar paths. We sat idly but not through lack of wind rather it was circumstances associated with resources and weather that kept us moored in the one place for most nights. And, in the absence of a useful wind for sailing, we had the privilege of an engine to motor us between Hobart and Port Davey and beyond. As the poem becomes gloomier, no connections remain and any resemblance to our south west voyage disappears.

The poem has no direct link with Tasmania, but the Ancient Mariner’s ship does sail south and describes seas which can be found at any time in the Southern Ocean. That I have returned from a voyage in the Southern Ocean on a sailing ship of the type in existence when Coleridge wrote, has given me courage to include excerpts from his poem here.

And now, all in my own countree,

I stood on the firm land!

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