Saturday, September 30, 2006

Winter Book Club

You may already have seen that Carol of May Dreams Garden (see the link in the sidebar) has proposed organising a book club for the winter months. The idea is that people should suggest books they’ve enjoyed which other people could read and then comment on.

I immediately sat down to write a list – and found I couldn’t. For obvious reasons, Carol’s two criteria are that the books should be still in print and written in English – and most of mine aren’t. If I say that one of the books I refer to most was written in 1969 by Percy Thrower , you’ll get the general idea (no, I wasn’t gardening then – I inherited it. But that’s for another post). The wonderful thing about gardening books is that they don't go out of date - the new ones may describe new varieties and have new ideas, but the old ideas are still the basic ones. The only thing about Percy that drives me mad is that he clearly believes he's writing for a male audience. A woman is simply the nuisance in the house who demands that certain plants are grown to provide cut flowers. But I'll forgive him. (And don't you love the shirt and tie for cutting the lawn?)

Back to the book club. As I couldn't recommend anything off my shelves, I decided to write a wish list instead, and spent half an hour surfing Guardian Unlimited’s gardening book section. I ended up with a list far too long to post, but I’ve whittled it down and you’ll find it below. I have no idea if these books are really good or not, but they look interesting and I wouldn’t say no to finding them under the tree on Christmas morning (just in case my husband happens to be reading this) :

Michael Pollan - The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World, Bloomsbury Publishing
Christoper Lloyd and Graham Rice - Garden Flowers from Seed, Penguin (UK) Timber Press (USA)
Alan TitchmarshAlan Titchmarsh, the Gardener's Year, BBC Books (or anything else by Alan Titchmarsh, come to that).
Charles Chesshire- Japanese Gardening, Aquamarine
Steven B Carroll - Ecology for Gardeners, Timber Press - this is available for limited preview on Google.

Quite a lot of people have already submitted lists, and all the titles look interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing which ones are chosen. When are we going to start, Carol?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reusing and Recycling

Our local library has just closed for three months, for building renovation work, so I took advantage of the fact that we were able to take out more books than usual for a longer period and got several large reference books – the sort that you want to dip into a bit at a time, rather than read straight through. One of the books I took out was by Christian Pessey. The original was in French, but an English translation of the Italian title would be Flowers and Plants for Windows, Balconies and Terraces. Reading it got me thinking about recycling.

In Milan, household waste has to be separated – paper, glass, plastic and aluminium all go into separate containers from “wet” waste, and are recycled. Which would seem great for the environment. But even recycling has its critics – the amount of energy used in transporting and reprocessing the waste creates pollution, as may the chemicals involved in the reprocessing itself. For the pros and cons, click
here and here.

Another site, and I’m afraid I’ve lost the link, suggested that a balanced approach was to follow the Five Rs : Reduce the amount of plastic etc used; Reuse things wherever possible; Recycle things which really have to be thrown away; Reject items using excessive and unnecessary packaging; and React – let manufacturers and shop-owners etc know how you feel.

Plessey’s book was interesting from the re-use point of view. Although he didn’t explicitly mention environmental issues, he suggested various ways that plastic packaging could be used in gardening rather than buying new stuff. Some of his ideas were not new – for example, using yoghurt pots for seedlings instead of buying more plastic pots (though even there it had never occurred to me to use a match or red hot needle to make the drainage holes – I tried it out with a candle flame and it was much easier than my usual clumsy attempts with a skewer). But others, though simple, I’d never thought of – for example cutting off plastic bottle bottoms to make mini-cloches to fit over pots with cuttings or seedlings.

But my favourite idea was that of using the shells of boiled eggs (with a hole pierced in the bottom for drainage) instead of small plastic or peat pots. (For reasons for avoiding peat click here ). They have the same advantage as peat pots in that the whole “container” can be transferred to the final planting position, without disturbing the roots of the young plant, and the roots will simply grow through the shell, acquiring nutrients on the way. I presume this means a lot of calcium, so it’s probably to be avoided for lime-hating plants, but it would be great for things like zinnias which love lime.

I’m afraid I’ve gone a bit overboard on this one though and will have to calm down. I suspect my family are likely to revolt if they see another egg within the next fortnight…

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Beta Bloggers

You shouldn’t notice any difference, but I’ve just changed the blog over onto Blogger Beta. I did it because, not here but for my other blog, I need the possibility of filing posts under categories – and after spending three frustrating hours yesterday faffing around with html trying to add the facility to the old site, I decided it was easier to change. Advantages and disadvantages? Well I did get the categories (Blogger calls it Labels) facility that I wanted, though it’s not as good as I hoped. I really wanted a drop down menu which led you to individual posts, while in blogger Beta if you click on the category it simply opens a page with all the posts under that category on it. Better than nothing, but you still have to scroll all the way down with no idea of exactly what you’ll find. A drag if there are a lot of posts.

Publishing is quicker – in fact it’s automatic and you don’t have to wait at all, and uploading photos is supposed to be easier, although I can't say I've noticed much difference. But I’ve lost the template which I had on the last site and have had to change to another, and I don’t find it nearly so easy to play around with html to get the exact effects I want. It might be me – let’s face it, two months ago I’d never even read a blog - and perhaps I just haven’t figured out what to do yet. But I get the feeling that in trying to create a system that does everything for you, they’ve also created one which is much more difficult to personalise. We will see …

On the balcony, the first signs of autumn are definitely appearing. But while a lot of things are starting to fade, others are waking up after the long hot summer, like these little cyclamens. The trees are still green, but my neighbour’s Virginia Creeper is starting to turn and the flowers on the trees outside my window have been replaced by berries. It’s also dark now by 7.30 –the worst sign that winter is on the way.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On Roses

Try as I might (and I have, I have) I can’t grow roses. It’s always the same – after a couple of weeks the lower leaves start to dry, stalk by stalk, and fall off until the whole plant is bare and dies. Is it a virus? Am I over-watering? Is the balcony just too hot and humid for them? I don’t know, but until I find out I’ve given up.

However, as a hangover from the days when I was trying, I still receive the
Barni Roses catalogue to show me what I’m missing. They carry roses from a variety of growers, but the majority of their stuff is their own. If you’re a rose freak, check out their new rose Etrusca, which is the most stupendous apricot colour. It’s one of a collection called Le Toscane, which also contains my all-time favourite Bella di Todi, (the photo on the site doesn’t do it justice). The different collections are listed on the left hand side of the site - if you like old-fashioned roses, look too at Le Farfalle.

I also love their trailing roses and if I ever have a garden again, it’s going to have to have a bank with a low stone wall so that I can grow them.

Meanwhile, back on the balcony the mirabilis jalapa is finally doing itself justice. Don’t know why they call it the four o’clock plant – seven o’clock is more like it for mine. I suppose plants are like people – some of us just take longer than others to get out of bed ….

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Wind and Rain

I’ve been busy with work for the past couple of weeks, which hasn’t left time for doing more than the minimum (ie watering) on the balcony. So I knew that this weekend had to be dedicated to clearing up a bit. Climbers needed tying up, the plants still in flower needed dead heading, there were seed pods needing collecting, and so on. There was a bit of dead stuff too, but on the other hand quite a lot of plants were still looking good, particularly the plumbago and petunias which had all breathed a sigh of relief when the summer heat disappeared and had come back into full flower. As had the pelargoniums (photo above). The alyssum (photo below) was blooming well again too, for the second time this year, while the marigolds had never stopped.

And then on Friday, autumn hit with a vengeance, with 12 hours of strong winds, storms and torrential rain. So strong that even the balconies got drenched, which only happens very rarely.

The rain wreaked havoc with the plants which were trailing over the balustrade, while the wind blew over a lot of stuff inside the balcony and snapped off stems on some of the taller plants. By Saturday they were looking decidedly sad and soggy, and the general clear-up had changed into a major rescue operation. The only positive point was that the tree was looking considerably cleaner than it had the day before …

Today the sun came back out and everything cheered up fast, but I think that it probably marks the beginning of the end for most of the annuals. So it’s time to start thinking about winter flowers. There are buds on the asters, chrysanthemums and cyclamen, and the only primrose which made it through the heat of the summer is throwing out leaves again. And I’ve just found a too-good-to-miss offer in a gardening magazine for bulbs.

So, I can't say I'm looking forward to winter, but maybe there will be compensations ...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

IntraGalactic Plant Exchange

The plant in the photo is my wild asparagus. I found it growing in one of the containers a few years ago, and at first didn’t know what it was. So I stuck it in a pot to see what happened.

At first – absolutely nothing. For the first couple of years, the original four or five three-inch spikes just sat there looking boring and taking up space, so that last year I was on the point of throwing it out. And then it suddenly exploded and grew at a rate of knots. It’s still not the most interesting of plants, but I love the bright green of the leaves, and it’s very useful for providing foliage in vases of cut flowers.

Where did it come from? It must have just drifted in on the wind. Plants do seem to be fairly good at finding themselves new homes. Watching Star Trek : Deep Space Nine the other night I was amazed to see that Bromeliads are well established on the planet Bajor, at least 50 light years from Earth. In fact, one of the characters Vedek Bareil explained that he had studied to be a gardener, and that Bromeliads were his passion. Now how did they get there? I can take teletransportation and holodecks without blinking, but the idea that identical vegetation evolved on two such distant planets is stretching it too far. Seeds thrown into space after an asteroid impact and left to boldly go where no plant has gone before ? Unlikely. 50 light years is a long way without Warp Drive …

No, as any self-respecting Vulcan would tell you, such solutions are just illogical. I suspect that it’s the result of an Interplanetary Seed Sharing scheme, or something of the sort. If you were visiting Vulcan, Bajor or somewhere, wouldn’t you want to bring a few samples back? So next time someone knocks on your door and asks if they could take some seeds from your Schizanthus or cuttings from your Chrysanthemums, just look for the tell-tale signs. Pointy ears, odd ridges on the nose or forehead, attractive blotchy patterning around the hairline – you could be taking part in Intra-Galactic Plant Exchange.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Worst of All Jobs

It’s no good – I can’t put it off any longer. I have to wash the tree.

If you have a garden, you probably don’t think about washing your trees very often, but when you keep one on a balcony which doesn’t get any rain to wash the leaves naturally, you have no choice. After a couple of months in a pollution-ridden city, the tree is so dirty that it can’t breathe any longer. Mine’s an 8 ft Weeping Fig (Ficus Benjamina), and also prone to attacks of scale insects if it’s ignored for too long.

So at least twice a year, spring and autumn, I give it a thorough wash – as soon as it goes out on the balcony in the spring, and just before it comes back into the house in the autumn. In between it gets “dusted” and sprayed with water occasionally. But it’s a job I hate - there are an awful lot of leaves on an 8 ft tree, and they all need cleaning individually. I have tried cheating and just dunking the leaves in a bucket of water branch by branch, but the dirt sticks, so they still need wiping down one by one. I usually end up with more water over me than over the plant too.

The tree will have to come inside within the next month or so, and it’s too messy a job for indoors. So I shall do a few branches a day for the next week. I’d love to prune at the same time, but it should really be done in spring. The pruning is going to have to be quite drastic, as it’s getting far too big for the sitting room, so I’ll wait till the recommended time. It also needs repotting, as it’s leaning over at about 60° from the vertical – the result of always having to stand it in a corner. Its branches now grow out in a triangular shape with nothing at the back. The shape suits me fine, but it means that it’s top heavy and is being pulled over. However, with the limited space on the balcony the task of repotting is a bit daunting.

I’ve had the tree for about thirteen years, and apart from the first few years while I was trying to find out what position suited it best in the house (our flat is quite dark), it’s thrived. It tends to lose a few leaves in the autumn when I bring it in, but then settles down again. It needs surprisingly little water, given its size, and nothing special in the way of feeding. I change the top layer of soil in the pot once a year, and use a liquid houseplant fertiliser during the summer.

In natural conditions Ficus benjamina can grow to 20 or 30 metres. It’s one of a group known as Strangler Figs because they often start life sitting on the branch of another tree. They send down aerial roots which, when they penetrate the ground, crowd out and strangle the roots of the original tree. And mine seemed such a nice type of plant ....

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Gardeners Question Time

When I first started living abroad, one of the things I missed most about Britain was the radio – especially Radio 4. But since the BBC started broadcasting over the Internet you can both listen live and catch up with programmes you missed by accessing the archive.

Yesterday I went into the
Gardener’s Question Time page and noticed that they had a list of vegetables recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society for growing in containers. I’ve never done much fruit or vegetable growing, mainly because the few miserable tomatoes and beans which I have tried have always failed miserably. But I might try and get hold of these for next year and have another go. They've all been given an Award of Garden Merit, and there are brief instructions given for sowing etc.

If you don't already know them, the BBC’s general gardening site is also one of the best I know and well worth checking out, as is the site of the RHS.

Despite my general failures however, this year’s melon experiment worked and the “babies” are growing visibly day by day – here’s the result so far. Definitely something to do again, starting much earlier, next year.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Virus Attack

After four months of blooms, the hollyhocks are still going strong and, although the stems are getting a bit straggly, I haven’t the heart to pull them out yet. I’m going to have to though as one has got what appears to be mosaic virus (see below). I’m a bit worried about it – I can destroy the plant and change the soil in the container, but the container itself is a large stone pot which is far too heavy to move or tip up. So disinfecting it would be a big problem. I can’t just pour in disinfectant as it would run straight out of the drainage holes – and straight onto the balcony below. But I’d like to grow more hollyhocks in the same place next year and I’m worried that the virus will just be passed straight on. I've already got a lot of young plants coming on, but sadly, my favourite purply red flowers didn't produce seeds. I don't know why. It bloomed as well as the others, though a bit later, but just didn't produce seed pods.

My pelargoniums also seem to be having problems. I noticed this problem of leaf colour (photo below) a few weeks ago. I thought it was a nutrition deficiency problem, so changed the top layer of soil and fed the plant fairly generously. But now it’s appeared in a second pot and I’m wondering whether it too isn’t a virus. I really hope not, because it’s attacked a huge plant which I’d be very loathe to lose, and which I was about to take cuttings from. Does anyone recognise it?

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