Green Island in the Sky


Dainty flowers of the Blue Lilly Pilly

Dainty flowers of the Blue Lilly Pilly

At last – somebody has put together a book celebrating the beauty and diversity of the mountain I love to call home.

The adventurous and versatile medico/journalist/artist/photographer Jaap Vogel has created a work of great beauty, featuring his own photographs of Tamborine’s natural attractions and the works of several local artists which interpret nature in various ways.  It’s a truly lovely book and the name is perfect – we DO think of ourselves as an island up here, a green and peaceful place inhabited by as rich a mix of artists, musicians and writers as you’d find anywhere outside a major city.  Development and the urban horrors of the Gold Coast creep ever closer to the base of the mountain but still we remain islanders; invaded by tourist hordes each day, it’s true, but all our own between the hours of 4pm to 10 am.

Jaap has been involved in various community organisations in his years of association with Tamborine, and once brought a creative flair to his role as a president of Landcare that showed us how meetings could actually be fun.  He’s unusual in that he combines the role of artist with that of scientist…the very human embodiment of the fractal!…and can talk about sculpture and photography with the same enthusiasm as he brings to any discussion of artificial intelligence.

To learn more about Jaap and his book go to


Growing lemon trees in pots

Lemon Lemon tree, very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet – but grow it in a pot and be prepared to face defeat! Well that’s my take on the old song, anyway.  And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “what’s wrong with my lemon tree” then I’d be a rich woman!  The Italians have been successfully growing citrus in pots for centuries but in the tropics and subtropics we rarely get it right.  This is because we’re challenging Nature by trying to grow a plant that thrives in dry climates with low winter rainfall and hot, dry summers.  Luckily most citrus bear fruit in the subtropical autumn/winter when it’s cool and dry but the soggy summers encourage pest and disease problems. So there are three main rules when growing a lemon tree (or any other citrus tree) in a pot:  The right environment, the right watering and fertilising program and the right care regime. ENVIRONMENT Choose a BIG pot that is wider at the top than at the bottom but not so small at the base that it can easily topple.  A lemon tree grows large and bushy and you don’t want to keep repotting so fill up any empty spaces with herbs that can be removed later. Choose a sunny position with plenty of space all around.  Citrus needs at least six hours full sun a day and an airy position discourages fungal diseases.  Perfect drainage is essential so put some gravel or small stones in the bottom of the pot, top with a 5 cm layer of coarse sand then fill the rest with a good quality potting mix. WATER AND FERTILISER Water thoroughly every two days; more in very hot weather.  Check regularly to see that the growing mix is neither soggy nor too dry.  Don’t spray the leaves because this encourages fungal diseases and sooty mould.  The potting mix will feed the plant for the first three months; after that apply a citrus fertiliser according to the instructions on the packet – usually every two months is enough. CARE Top up the potting mix every spring, first removing about one third of the old mix and flushing the rest with a hose at full strength.  Flushing breaks up a mix that is starting to harden and become too impacted around the roots.  It also gets rid of any build up of salts that come with regular fertilising. Lemon trees and other citrus are sadly prone to health problems and attack by insect pests. The leaves should always be a rick, deep green (darker in mandarins) and if they are not then start looking for problems. The most common health problems are due to incorrect nutrition and will show themselves by yellowing leaves or yellowing along the veins only.  If you are applying a complete citrus fertiliser regularly then this should not occur.  However, if older leaves develop yellow veins then dissolve a tablespoon of Epsom Salts in a 5 litre watering can and pour around the roots.  This problem is more common with citrus grown in ground than in pots.  Sooty mould is an unsightly black deposit on leaves and stems caused by the secretions (commonly called “honeydew”) from certain insects such as aphids and scale.  These are often found in association with ants so if you see ants all over the tree, check for their host insects and wash them off with soap and water.  This treatment also gets rid of the mould.  Adding some pesticidal oil such as Neem, or even a teaspoon of household disinfectant, will discourage the problem from re-occurring. The most common insect pests of citrus are Bronze Orange Bugs and Citrus Leaf Miner.  The former reveal themselves through a pungent, unpleasant smell and are either green (when very young) black or bright orange.  They can be picked off by hand but if the tree is badly infested use Pest Oil or Confidor.  If you handle them, they secrete a sticky, smelly liquid which is mildly corrosive.  Their sap sucking habit damages the branches and leaves.  Citrus Leaf Miner is the caterpillar of a moth that lays its eggs in new, tender young leaves.  The caterpillars leave pale, silvery trails through the leaves which become distorted and pallid.  Pest Oil discourages the moth from laying so be alert to the first signs and then spray the new growth and remove any leaves already affected.  This or any other insecticidal oil will kill off most insect pests.  However, it’s always safest to be sure so if your potted lemon tree looks unthrifty, with yellowing or distorted leaves, or blackening tips, get advice either on-line or from your local garden centre. Lemon trees grown in-ground in subtropical climates often show signs of citrus scab which are brownish lumps and patches on the fruit skin.  It looks bad but doesn’t harm the fruit.  However, as lemon trees are grown in pots for ornamental reasons you don’t want scabby, unsightly fruit so spray in mid-spring with a solution of copper oxychloride and white oil (available from nurseries/garden centres or hardware stores).  This stops the problem occurring and you should have lovely yellow unblemished lemons. Potted lemon trees need pruning, unlike those grown in the ground.  Lightly trim to shape as required but if you want flowers and fruit, don’t hard prune when flower buds start to appear.  Water shoots – the long, pale, branchlets with (usually) larger leaves than those on the main branches – grow from the base of the tree, below the graft mark, and should be removed.  If the branches in the centre of the tree are too thick and tangled, gently remove a few to open it up – this helps avoid fungus problems by letting more light into the centre of the canopy.  Always use sharp secateurs or pruning saws, and sterilise them first. After five years or so the constraints of being confined to a pot affect the roots of lemon trees and they begin to fail – symptoms are smaller leaves, leaf drop, fewer fruit or fruit drop.  The whole tree begins to look down at heel.  There are horticultural techniques to de-pot and trim the roots but these require a lot of skill and effort.  The obvious answer is to buy a bigger pot but if this is not feasible then just remove the tree and either plant it outside or just throw it away – you’ll have had plenty of value from it by then and no plant lives forever. Remember, if you want any more advice on this topic or any other, just email me at and I’ll try to help.

Rosemary relieves stress


Yes, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) DOES help prevent and relieve stress but only through inhalation, and only for mild cases.  Just don’t expect it to work as well, or as quickly, as a pharmaceutical anti-stress medicine.

To make this work for you, use either fresh rosemary or the extracted oil.  Spend ten minutes each morning, before you start your day, inhaling either an oil-soaked pad or a bunch of rosemary leaves.  You may like to do this in conjunction with some other stress-relieving activity such as yoga or tai chi.  Do the same last thing at night to relax you before sleeping.  And do it as many times during the day as you can find time for, or as your stress level dictates.

Rosemary as a stress-reliever has been the subject of several recent authoritative, peer-reviewed scientific studies (as opposed to quack stuff turned out by so-called natural scientists) and these indicate (albeit cautiously) definite benefits in inhaling the complex chemicals that make up the oil found in rosemary leaves.  They include rosmarinic acid, also found in basil, sage and oregano, which derives from caffeic acid, a powerful antioxidant.  Among other things it has been shown to increase the production of saliva and reduce stress hormone cortisol levels.

Rosemary’s other, and more tangible health benefit, is as an anti-bacterial agent.  All plants with pungent oils can be used in this way, either to preserve food or dab on cuts and scratches.  In warm weather, when I want to keep meat at room temperature before cooking, I lay it on a bed of rosemary leaves and cover it with the same – rubbing the leaves a bit first to release the oils.  Rosemary oil can be dabbed on minor abrasions, though a more powerful biocide would need to be used on more serious wounds.  Some rashes will also respond to applications of rosemary oil.

Many extravagant claims are made for the health benefits of rosemary and most of them have absolutely no scientific basis.  Indeed, taking large amounts of medicinal rosemary sold in “natural health” outlets, in either oil or dried-leaf form, may create problems for those on diuretic or blood-thinning drugs.  Still, any plant which contains rich and complex oils will have SOME health benefits when added in moderation to food.  The pungent oil dictates sparing use but this is also what makes it such an effective counter-flavour with fatty meats such as mutton and lamb.  I also use it in casseroles with any meat, and in Mediterranean-style vegetable dishes where a lot of garlic and olive oil is also used.


Historically, rosemary has been associated with remembrance.  To those with a British cultural inheritance, this is mainly because that’s what Ophelia tells us, in Hamlet, when she’s madly strewing herbs all over the place.  And Shakespeare obviously got the idea from somewhere.  Though whether it’s because we believe that it actually improves memory, or because we’ve extrapolated this idea from the fact that rosemary (a common plant) was used centuries ago to place on graves in respectful memory of the dead, is not clear.

Healthy sprigs for cooking - or inhaling to relieve srress

Healthy sprigs for cooking – or inhaling to relieve srress




I’ve written a lot about rosemary over the years because, taken all round, it’s my favourite garden herb.  By “garden” I mean a herb that also makes a useful ornamental plant, not just one that’s grown in a pot or herb garden for culinary or medicinal purposes.  In my many years as a gardener I’ve used rosemary for low hedges, parterre borders, single pot specimens and as a foundation and background plant in mixed beds and borders.  Its green or greyish green (depending on variety) upright foliage spikes set off other garden plants quite beautifully.  And when it’s in flower, it’s a colourful sight all on its own.

Rosemary grows in all but very tropical climates with heavy monsoon rains and though it looks at its best and lasts longest in Mediterranean and warm-temperate climates it adapts very nicely to desert and subtopical zones.  It can even be grown as a summer plant in cold climates, provided it’s brought into a warm, protected environment in winter.  In fact rosemary is so versatile that the different climates merely mean a slightly different management regime. In my subtropical  mountaintop climate I replace my bushes every five years for maximum good looks – whether in ground or in pot. The plant will continue growing long after that but starts to look straggly.  In colder and less humid climates rosemary bushes keep their looks a lot longer.

The basic rules for rosemary are good drainage and regular watering.  Don’t overwater though – the very name rosemary is derived from the Latin, meaning “sea dew” (and not, as I used to think, something to do with roses and the Virgin Mary!) and this is because in Mediterranean regions just the lightest sea mist was enough to keep this plant in moisture. Regular tip pruning for health and shape is also important, with a good cut back (about one third) in autumn.  This encourages profuse flowering when spring comes round again – and my rosemary flowers from spring right through to the following autumn. Old, dead growth should also be regularly removed. The only fertilizing necessary is a dose of compost around the base of new plants, digging it in slightly, about three months after they go into the ground.  I repeat this once a year in late spring, Pot plants get fed once a month with a cheap all – purpose liquid fertilizer .  Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers or plants will be reluctant to flower.  My soil is rather acid so I sprinkle dolomite around my rosemary bushes twice a year, in early spring and late summer.

The best mulch for rosemary is gravel.  This will warm the plant, help prevent root-rot diseases and protect the shallow roots from heavy rain and soil erosion.  It will also keep down weeds.  Coarse bark is also an acceptable mulch, or nutshells, but “soft” mulches such as hay and leafmold will encourage the root-rot pathogens that are the only problem that ever seems to effect this tough herb.

A herb that grows thick and healthy without much work

A herb that grows thick and healthy without much work








Angioni A, Barra A, Cereti E, Barile D, Coisson JD, Arlorio M, et al. Chemical composition, plant genetic differences, antimicrobial and antifungal activity investigation of the essential oil of Rosmarinus officinalis L. J Agric Food Chem. 2004;52(11):3530-3535.

Atsumi T, Tonosaki K. Smelling lavender and rosemary increases free radical scavenging activity and decreases cortisol level in saliva. Psychiatry Res. 2007;150(1):89-96.