Saturday, August 30, 2008
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Balcony gardening is light on tools and equipment. You need some containers, obviously, and a good watering can. But forget the spades, forks, rakes and hoes that you need in an ordinary garden. Not to mention lawnmowers, hedge clippers and all the rest. When you're balcony gardening, almost everything can be done with your hands.
My own tool bag consists of two trowels and a small fork which haven't seen the light of day for months, a dibber which I occasionally use for planting bulbs and seedlings, and a pair of secateurs which don't work and which I suppose I'll get round to replacing someday. But there's no rush. On a balcony even shrubs tend to be kept small, so that the scissors often do the job of pruning just as well. Gardening gloves aren't necessary, but I do sometimes put on rubber gloves - the thin type that doctors wear - if I'm handling plants that irritate the skin (alyssum brings me out in blotches for instance) or if I've got a cut on my hand and don't quite feel like plunging it into stable manure.
But I do use my scissors a lot. I have two pairs - one large and one small, nail-scissor type. I use them for all the jobs I don't want to use my hands for, or which would otherwise have me tearing at things with my teeth. They're invaluable for ..
- deadheading - especially things like horribly sticky surfinias.
- getting rid of dead or dying sections of plants - a snip a day keeps the red spider mite away. Well, sometimes.
- preparing softwood cuttings - yes, I know a sharp knife or razor blade are usually recommended. but in my hands these would become lethal weapons, and I'm too fond of my fingers to risk it. Nail scissors work just as well.
- opening bags of compost - even I don't use my teeth for this one.
- cutting lengths of twine - nothing looks worse on a balcony than long bits of twine sticking out from the plants. Trim them at the knot.
- opening seed packets - OK, you can rip the paper. But that little internal sealed packet?
- pruning - see above
- cutting flowers for inside and harvesting veg
- threatening my family - when they brush past the plants and break bits off.
So there you have it. Nine reasons why I wouldn't be without my scissors. I know, I know - the title said ten. But I've run out. Have I forgotten anything? Can anyone else suggest the tenth?
This post was part of a group writing project suggested by Darren Rowse of Problogger - a site well worth visiting for ideas on blogging.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Eraclea Mare, a small seaside village on the north eastern coast of Italy, about 50 km east of Venice. A wide sandy beach gives way to sand dunes and pine forest, then the village which in winter has only 200 inhabitants, but in summer is full of tourists from Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia. The Brits and the French don't seem to have discovered it yet. From then on the land is flat until you get to the Dolomites - the eastern part of the Alps which divide Italy from Austria. They're about 100 km away, but on our last morning, after an incredible thunderstorm and hailstorm during the night, it seemed you could reach out and touch them, the air was so clear.
We were at
The crop growing in the field above is soya, one of the main agricultural products of the area. I went riding in the country one day and saw that they were experimenting with sowing soya and winter wheat at the same time. The winter wheat grows and is harvested before the soya really starts coming through, but once the wheat is gone it takes over. The advantage is that the field is only ploughed once, instead of twice, meaning less work but also less soil erosion and less air pollution from the tractors. The fields grown like that didn't seem to give nearly as great a yield as the one above, however, so I wonder if the experiment might be dropped. Does anyone know of anywhere else it's been tried?
I spent a lot of time walking and biking in the pine woods. I can't claim they were deserted, as they were constantly crossed by people going or coming back from the beach. But I managed to find some quiet shady paths.
Pinus pinea) which are typical of Mediterranean regions. I was on the look out for wildlife, but there was disappointingly little. The most common birds were ring necked doves, which cooed and squawked in the trees around our hotel.
The pines were Umbrella Pines (
And there were also a far larger number of jays than I've ever seen in one place before. They were exceptionally tame, and would hop around on the ground in front of you, only flying away at the last minute - except of course on the day I went out with my camera to photograph them.
Red squirrels are still holding their own in many parts of Italy, though in some areas the greys are fast wiping them out. Despite their name, their coat colour can vary, including a variety found in the south of Italy (sciurus vulgaris meridionale) which is completely black. This one had a dark brown coat and the characteristic white belly.
Although I've been in the area many times before (my husband was born nearby and likes to go back to see relatives and old haunts), it was the first time we'd been to Eraclea Mare. I chose it because it seemed less developed and "touristy" than other places along the coast, and we were well rewarded. It was a super holiday and I know we shall go back. If you're in the area, I recommend it.
Explore some more...
For information on the danger posed to the red squirrel population by the greys : The European Squirrel Initiative
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Plumbago, or Cape Leadwort (Plumbago auriculata). It has to be one of my favourite flowers and there was never any doubt that it would pop up as one of my "Gardener's Bloom Day Flowers of the Month" some time this year. But it nearly didn't make it. Last year plumbago was in full bloom in June here. This year, with the cold wet spring we had it was late. June came and went, but there was no sign. And then in July I started noticing it blooming on other people's balconies.
There's a lot of contradictory information about the plant on the web. You'll read it thrives in the heat and the sun. Or that it should be protected from too much direct sunlight. That it can't take temperatures under 7°C. And that it will survive frosts. That it does well in poor soil. That it likes a rich compost. The list goes on.
In my experience it's a tough little plant that will grow under a range of conditions. I don't think there's any doubt that it likes the sun (it's native to South Africa after all). But I find that its also fairly hardy. I cover mine in winter but most of my neighbours don't and it seems to survive, despite the fact that temperatures may be well below zero at times.
I don't give mine any special treatment and, apart from the lack of blooms this year, have never had problems. It's grown in ordinary soil, and fed and watered much the same as any other plant. As the water here is very hard, plants which are really particular about acidic soil just don't make it under normal watering conditions, but I've never had problems on that front.
Another reason I may not be getting many blooms this year is because I didn't prune this spring. Plumbago blooms off the new wood, and can be cut back fairly enthusiastically to encourage new growth and keep it in check. In a garden it can reach three or four feet high, so in a container it needs a bit of restraint.
It's also one of the few plants I have which doesn't seem to suffer from red spider mite - or anything else for that matter. It's poisonous, and for those of you who have the problem, deer will avoid it. (That does come from the net - we don't get many on the balcony.) It does attract butterflies, though as I've never had caterpillar damage i presume it's just for the flowers.
For me, the powder blue colour of my plant is the "classic" plumbago colour, though I've seen some darker blue varieties which were also very striking. Personally, I'm less keen on white.
One last thing - if you're growing it for the first time, don't panic if nothing seems to be happening in spring. It's deciduous and the new leaves come through very late. When everything else is bursting into life it's still there, brown and dead looking. But it isn't. Stick with it.
Monday, August 11, 2008
But I also had some others coming on which I'd started from seed, and they're now blooming. And lo and behold one of them is producing a mix of yellow and pink flowers, some of them with rather natty stripey sections.
As I was moving them around last week I clumsily broke off a large chunk of one of them. It was full of buds, so I thought I'd stick it in a jar of water to see if the flowers would open anyway. I then forgot about it till yesterday, only to find that within the week it had put out roots. This has to be the easiest plant in the world to propagate ...