Plant of the month – Davidson plum

December 11th, 2011

This month’s cover photo

Davidson plum

Davidson plum

Davidsonia pruriens is an understorey rainforest tree growing to about 8metres. It produces a purple, hairy-skinned fruit with deep red flesh during summer. The flesh is sour and makes excellent jam, wine, sauces and desserts.

The compost bin – Can our health system afford our bad habits?

December 11th, 2011

flyThe threat that the Tully hospital was to close for three weeks over Christmas (not to mention that it may close altogether in 2012!) is an indication of the budget crises facing Queensland Health.

The burden on Queensland health is reflected in ever-increasing numbers of people requiring hospitalization, over 60,000 extra people per year admitted to hospital over the last ten years: this is a nightmare for health planners. The number of hospitalisations per year has increased by 33% between 2000 and 2008 while the population increased by 18% over this period. The Queensland hospitalisation rate is double that of Canada.

On World Diabetes Day on the 14 November this year, Diabetes Australia advised that type-2 diabetes rates are up by 43 % in Queensland compared to 28 % nationally. Obviously there is a diabetes crisis occurring right now in Queensland.

In the period 2001-2005, the incidence rate of all cancers was 5.6 % higher in Queensland than the national rate.  This was the highest of all the states and territories.

The Queensland Health Department has stated that the increase in the need for health-care in Queensland has largely been explained by lifestyle behaviour.  This includes:

# 81% of lung cancer burden is due to smoking;
# 84% of coronary heart disease is due to lifestyle behaviour;
# 74% of diabetes is due to lifestyle behaviour;
# 34.6% of cancer is due to lifestyle behaviour; and
# 11.4% of Queensland adults are drinking a high risk levels.

The economic impact of our bad behaviour is impacting on the Queensland health budget. The economic impact of our bad behaviour directly affects our personal well being and can be financial crippling to the individual as well as the state.

In 1964 I visited the Gilbert & Ellis Islands, which stradle the equator in the central Pacific Ocean.  The people were a picture of health: they lived a traditional lifestyle and produced their own food by fishing and gardening. The people lived, laughed, sang and danced on Islands in a Pacific paradise.

I returned to the Gilbert & Ellis Islands in 1976 at a time when they became independent nations. The Gilbert Islands became the nation of Kiribati and the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu.  I saw other changes: Over the twelve short years I had been away I observed that traditional lifestyle had mostly broken down. Food gardens were not being tended to properly and the men no longer ventured forth in long fishing trips.  Now most food was purchased from the new stores which were supplied by cargo boats. White rice, white flour, white sugar, fatty tined meat and fish had substituted their traditional food. The fishing rights had been sold to overseas interests and the close fishing grounds were depleted. The health of the people had obviously changed.  In twelve years the people changed from good health to having the accolade of the highest incidence of diabetes in the Pacific, if not the world.

Good health is not good luck. Good health is our obligation to achieve and maintain. The alternative is a long period of disability.

National health system expenditure is projected to triple over the next 20 years which would represent a projected increase from 9.3% of GDP in 2003 to 12.4% in 2033.

December in the vegetable garden

December 11th, 2011

The cassowaries are sitting on eggs, the metallic starling’s babies are hatching, the mournful coo of the nutmeg pigeon echoes across the rainforest and the frogs are singing the rain: the monsoon is on its way. While dark, cumulus clouds sit on the hills and hot, humid days make outdoor activities difficult, we know the cool rains will arrive soon.

If you are unable to maintain the vegetable garden, it is important to cover the soil with mulch.  This will prevent soil-runoff during heavy rain and weed infection from neglect.

At least make an effort to grow a few pots of herbs on the patio or windowsill, these can provide a cup or two of tasty green herbs every day for the kitchen. Herbs can transform potato, rice or pasta dishes into a nutritious balanced meal. Basil, chives, dill, fennel, tarragon, Asian coriander are all easy to grow in pots, but remember they will need to be watered every day over the summer season.

Meanwhile, in the vegetable garden dwarf snake bean seeds can be planted as a ground cover crop and these will provide bundles of beans for the kitchen all summer.  Being legumes, the beans will also fix nitrogen in the soil.

Cherry and Roma tomatoes will still grow through summer however in hot weather, fruit set is erratic.  In wet weather, fruit can split. Notwithstanding, it is still worth growing a few plants. Mound up around the trunk with compost to keep the root zone cool and encourage new roots to form off the stem. Tomatoes will grow lanky in summer and they need a firm trellis to hold this rampant growth.

Ceylon spinach

Ceylon spinach

Ceylon spinach is the stalwart wet season, green vegetable by withstanding the worst of weather.  Ceylon spinach is disease and pest resistant and it will grow in full sun or shade. Plant two or three rows of Ceylon spinach and cut about 10 cm of new growth every week for use in stir-fries or stews: the stems as well as the leaves are eaten.  Alternatively allow a few plants to climb a fence and harvest the leaves for use in sandwiches and salads. Remove the berries from the stems and place in a plastic bag and bin; otherwise birds will disperse the seed.  Ceylon spinach is high in folic acid and omega 3 fatty acids so it’s delicious and good for you.

Other vegetables to grow through summer are  chicory, endive, Kang Kong, sweet-leaf, climbing snake beans, sweet potato, spring onions, green gem and African horned cucumber and Jap pumpkin. The herbs basil, chives, dill, Asian coriander, Mexican tarragon, five spice and lemon grass all grow throughout summer, and pawpaw and breadfruit trees will provide the fruit.

Rust a fungal problem

December 11th, 2011

Rust the scourge of the tropics. It eats away at motor vehicles, house roofs and tin or iron that is lying around.

In the garden however, several fungi are commonly called rust: most of them of the species Puccinia.  Some survive from season to season on crop residues or decomposing organic matter.  Others are transmitted from the seed of infected plants but more often rust spores arrive in the wind and quickly infect vulnerable or sickly plants.

In general, plants affected by common leaf rust P.  hordei show circular brown pustules often with a yellow halo.  Sometimes these pustules appear in clusters on leaves. Most of the leaf rusts spread very quickly during wet, humid weather, palms, day-lilies and gerberas are particularly affected.

The pustules of tropical rust P. polysora are much smaller than those of common rust P. hordei, and are produced on midribs and leaf sheaths. Most pustules are elongated or irregular in shape. Severely affected leaves die prematurely and plants are defoliated progressively from the base.

Another rust P. carthami appears on fruit and vegetable seedlings like capsicun and tomatoes and is often carried with the seed. Seedling rust appears as reddish-brown pustules at the base of germinating stems and can cause the plant to suddenly collapse.

Dark pink frangipani

Dark pink frangipani

Crown rust P. coronata forms round-to-slightly elongated orange pustules that are conspicuously raised.  During wet or dewy weather the fungi builds up rapidly by producing large numbers of orange pustules on the leaf and leaf sheaths.

In contrast to the Puccinia rusts, the frangipani rust Coleosporium plumeriae arrived in Australia about twenty years ago and has spread throughout most of Queensland. Bright yellow pustules infect the underside of leaf surfaces, with mature fungi spores often carried by the wind.  The frangipani rust is host specific to the genus Plumeria. However, there are species of Plumeria like ‘pudica’ that have resistence to frangipani rust.

Myrtle rust

Myrtle rust

Myrtle rust is a serious fungal disease that affects plants in the Myrtaceae family, such as lilly pilly, eugenia, tea tree, bottle brush and eucalyptus. Myrtle rust is widely spread in South East Queensland and recent detections have been confirmed in nurseries in Cairns and Townsville. Myrtle rust cannot be eradicated and will continue to spread because it produces thousands of spores that are easily spread by wind, human activity and animals.

Fungi spores prefer host plants that are old or weak or those with acidic residues on their leaves, which can be caused from poor nutrition or chemical-based fertilisers.  In this event, with little or no resistance from the plant, the spores can easily and quickly replicate as they invade the degrading host.

Dwarf spoon-leaf frangipani which is resistant to frangipani-rust

Dwarf spoon-leaf frangipani which is resistant to frangipani-rust

However, most local native plants have developed a resistance to particular fungi and these plant lines should be selected for growing in the Wet Tropics.  Other plants like roses and kangaroo paw are susceptible to rust infection and will always be a challenge to grow and need constant care.

By good housekeeping in the garden such as removing weeds, raking up old leaves and pruning old branches, it is easy to create unfavourable conditions for fungi. Increasing air-flow around the plant will help to reduce moist, humid micro-conditions and potential infection.  Regular applications of fish-oil spray on the foliage and stems of plants, which leave a protective alkaline coating, will help the plant resist fungal infestation.

Sulphur or copper sprays can also be used to control rust. However, avoid spraying copper on bromeliads, capsicum and tomatoes as these plants are highly sensitive to copper. When spraying frangipani or ferns, do not add oil to the spray solution as this will damage and cause leaf drop of the foliage of these plants.

Fungi recycle life on planet earth and without these tiny life forms, matter would not decompose and we would soon be engulfed under megatons of waste.

Planning a new garden

December 11th, 2011

A short time spent on planning and preparation for a new garden will save hours on garden maintenance and plant replacement. I hope the following suggestions will help you enjoy gardening.

  1. Jot down the outdoor activities you plan for your backyard (e.g. B.B.Q or entertainment area, sport, bird watching, relaxation, laundry, orchard and /or vegetable garden).
  2. Make a sketch of your yard and allocate a place for the activities. If you are on-line there are a number of garden planners available free of charge.  Permaculture designs can be attractive, productive and functional.
  3. Understand the natural drainage of your yard during a rain event.  Identify low areas and indicate the direction of water flow.
  4. Build shallow spoon drains to remove water from activity areas.
  5. On a plan, draw the location, size and shape of garden beds and activity areas.  Is there enough space for all of your needs?
  6. Measure the garden beds and mark them out with a hose or lime dust.
  7. Remove grass cover and weeds from the garden areas and loosen the soil.
  8. Outline the new gardens with permanent edging using blocks, timber or stone.
  9. Build up the garden beds with enriched compost.
  10. Broadcast organic fertiliser and dolomite on the garden beds and incorporate into the soil.
  11. Cover the garden with mulch.
  12. Drive around your local town and look at other gardens.  Make a note of plants you like.
  13. Visit your nursery or garden centre with a photo of your garden, colour scheme and notes on the plants you like. The assistant will help you choose suitable plants.
  14. Arrange plants in their pots throughout the dug garden bed and pull the mulch aside to plant immediately.  Water the plants deeply as soon as the planting is finished: this means one bucket of water per plant. Water the new plants every day for the first month: after that twice a week.
  15. Once established, the garden will need watering once a week. Fertiliser can be applied every three months with the change of season. Renew the mulch every six months or as necessary.
  16. Remove the old flower heads regularly and tip prune shrubs to maintain a compact shape.
  17. Sit back and enjoy the birds and butterflies that visit your new garden.

    A garden seat  is a relaxation point

    A garden seat is a relaxation point

Soldier Crabs

December 11th, 2011

If you go down to the beach today you may get a big surprise. On beaches all over North Queensland mature soldier crabs are emerging in their thousands from their sandy tunnels. They form mass colonies as they move across the sand feeding and looking for a potential meal.  Soldier crabs live on tidal mangrove mudflats and in the sand of estuaries like that of the Johnstone River.

Soldier Crab

Soldier Crab

A fully-grown soldier crab has a bright blue carapace about 1.5 cm.  This is carried on long jointed legs with purple stripes. They walk forward instead of sideways as most other crabs.

Soldier crabs

Soldier crabs

They will emerge from their holes in the sand at low tide and move in mass across the beach eating algae and detritus extracted from sand and mud. They leave behind millions of small round sand-pellets neatly arranged in intricate patterns on the sand, but devoid of any organic matter.

As the tide returns to flood the estuary, the soldier crabs burrow downward in the sand, to a depth of about 30 cm, using a corkscrew motion and at the same time digging a breathing cavity around them which is four times as large as the crab itself.

Patterns in the sand

Patterns in the sand

As the tide floods the sand-flats they place a plug in the cavity: the plug prevents water from entering. The cavity is also used as a mating chamber.

Soldier crabs are an important food source for migratory birds, octopuses and stingrays as well as the cassowary. If you are lucky to be down on the beach on an early-morning low tide you may see a cassowary hunting those efficient and clever little soldier crabs.

Plant of the month – Pink Phyllanthus

November 20th, 2011

This month’s cover photo

Pink Phyllanthus

Pink Phyllanthus

Pink Phyllanthus is a fast-growing small tree (four metres) with flushes of pink new growth. The delicate pink flowers open in profusion over a long period  in spring and summer. This native plant grows in the rainforest of the Wet Tropics

The compost bin – Sustainable farming

November 20th, 2011

flyA good idea at the right time can change the way we work and think. Integrated Pest Management, IPM, is a management tool that can reduce the applications of chemicals on farms by over 50 %.  This can results in safer product for consumers, less chemicals in the environment, lower production costs for producers, and safer work conditions for farm workers.

When the idea that a farmer needed someone to tell him about pest and diseases on his property was first raised by scientists, it flew in the face of old farm work and lifestyle practices. However, around ten years ago the price of farm chemicals dramatically increased and this caused the farmer to rethink his pest control methods. To remain viable, the quantity of chemicals applied on-farm had to be reduced and new methods of application had to be examined. It was no longer sustainable to allow pest numbers to build up, damage the crop, and then drown the pests and plants in chemicals.

Sustainable farming

Sustainable farming

The establishment of agricultural consultancies have enabled farmers to use monitoring services so they can understand their pest problems and regulate chemical applications.  Consultants can recommend the appropriate chemical and application technique to use, thus targeting the pest before crop damage occurs.

While farmers have rights to access the natural resources on their farm such as soil and water, they have an obligation to minimise their impacts of soil and water use.  Environmental management systems, EMS, can dramatically reduce waste and pollution from horticultural land use.  EMS systems ensure the careful use of natural resources, particularly of water and soils. These systems plan to minimise environmental impacts, particularly run-off of sediments, fertilisers and pesticides into waterways.

EMS trials using suitable fallow crops can reduce pathogen loads in the soil while at the same time fixing nitrogen into the soil. Trials using fallow crops on banana farm-land have demonstrated that nematode numbers are repressed in the soil for up to three years, saving farmers up to $15000 per year.

The old use of blanket aerial sprays to control pest and disease is no longer viable.  The modern farmer is a manager of systems and the modern farm should uses holistic resource management tools to produce a crop. Farmers who are not following IPM and EMS systems in this modern era will have difficulty in farming sustainably.

November in the vegetable garden

November 20th, 2011

Over the last month changes have taken place with the weather. The humidity, one of the main factors in growing many vegetables, has dramatically increased. Over the winter months the humidity in the Wet Tropics falls as low as 40 % however, during summer the humidity is constantly over 80 %. Because of the increased air moisture, many plants ‘bolt’ i.e. they go to seed prematurely. High humidity and high summer heat are not suitable conditions for growing vegetables, especially those that originate in temperate areas.

However, there are many vegetables that have their origins in tropical climates.  These vegetables can and should be grown in the garden over the summer period.

Summer storms can bring torrential rain so garden beds should be built up to provide good drainage and prevent the soil from becoming water-logged. Constant rain acidifies the soil so dolomite, at the rate of one cup per square metre, should be added to sweeten the soil.

The summer sun will increase the soil temperature so protect the soil from the heat of the sun by covering it with light mulch. Mulch-cover will keep the soil cool and also prevents runoff in heavy rain. Not too mention a great help in reducing weeds.

Snake Beans

Snake Beans

As we complete the harvest of winter vegetables many garden beds will be left empty. Now is the time to sow a legume crop to benefit the soil. Legume crops like dwarf snake beans not only fix nitrogen in the soil but also provide a summer crop of delicious beans.

Chemical based fertiliser can burn plants particularly during hot weather. In summer it is best to only apply organic fertiliser in small amounts. A little bit often is the summer rule.

Some vegetable plants which are tolerant of heat are: – cucumbers green gem and African-horned, cherry tomato, Jap pumpkin, dwarf and climbing snake beans, sweet potato, taro, chicory, endive, Ceylon spinach, Chinese watercress (Kang Kong), sweet-leaf, spring onions, basil, chives and Mexican tarragon. Pawpaw is a fruit that can also be used as a summer vegetable. Harvest the pawpaw green for salads or cook as a substitute for marrow.

Cane-stemmed begonias

November 20th, 2011

The cane-stemmed begonia is an old tropical garden favourite and once could be found in most north Queensland gardens. Without pruning it can reach two metres in height and hold dozens of delicate blooms on the tips of the canes: truly a spectacular sight.

Begonia

Begonia

There are a number of types of cane-stemmed begonias. The ‘Superba Canes’ have deeply-lobed leaves and generally have silver markings. This variety is vigorous and can grow to two metres tall.

The intermediate type canes have leaves that are lightly lobed and marked with white or silver spots or splashes.  In general they have serrated margins and some have curly edges.

Begonia Peach Parfeits

Begonia Peach Parfeits

The ‘Ruba’ type of cane begonia has leaves that are entire with no serrations on their margin. The leaves are generally plain without any markings however, these plants are heavy bloomers and will flower most of the year.

Dragon Wings

Dragon Wings

The ‘Dragon Wing’ series is a new soft cane begonia cultivar. It is ideal for growing in hanging baskets and makes a stunning hanging plant.  This plant is also suitable for planting in a shaded, sheltered position in the garden. ‘Dragon Wings’ begonias demonstrate outstanding heat tolerance with continuous flowering. This is an ideal landscape plant for shaded areas.

All begonias should be pruned regularly to encourage new basal shoots and promote strong new growth.  Plants can be pruned at nodes, (leaf shoots) on new growth.  Cane begonias grow very well in pots and should be planted low into the pot to promote side shoots.

Fertilise begonias with an organic fertiliser every month through the warmer period. A monthly application of fish oil will deter pests like mealy-bug and aphids, which are common to begonias. If these pests multiply and you see damage, spray the plant with pyrethrum insecticide late in the afternoon.

Begonias need constant moisture but will not tolerate wet feet. Water the plants early in the morning so as to avoid fungal problems occurring.