Sunday, April 17, 2011

April Heatwave

We're never satisfied really. A month ago I was moaning about how cold it had been. Although average minimum temperatures are around 6°C in March, they'd dropped to below freezing at night, and I'd had to put the fleece back on some of the tenderest plants. But then it changed and the temperature rose to more normal figures. And kept on rising.... Only a week or so ago, it rose to 32°C - unheard of in April, which usually has average temperatures of around 18°C as a daytime high. I was watering as if it was mid-August rather than spring, and these little daisies just fainted one lunchtime when I hadn't had time to water in the morning. I have to say I knew just how they felt - I was in much the same state as I wandered around town.

The daisies recovered, despite also falling prey to a nasty attack of powdery mildew. I suspect that some of the spring blooms came and went rather quicker than they might otherwise have done, though. A pity, but the heat has pushed on some of the seedlings. The aubergines are now through, and the tomatoes are begging to be transplanted.

The best show so far this month has come from the wallflowers though. I planted far too many last year, but was looking forward to seeeing them all in bloom together. I'd planted some yellow ones and some browny ones whose seeds I'd collected from last year's plants, and some red ones from a packet. I wanted them mixed in the containers so had mixed the seeds together too. How would they come out? Well, those in the first container were all yellow.

And so were those in the second container. And the second, and the third... I'll spare you the photos of all six containers. Out of about forty plants, every one that's bloomed so far has been yellow, except two which have shown a few browny streaks. Given that my sedum is also in flower, it's been a very yellow month so far....

There are some wallflower plants which haven't yet bloomed - nor even put out buds come to that. Are those the red ones and are they simply a later variety than the yellow ones, or have they just decided they can't be bothered? Time will tell...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Oh, so that's what they were...

Last autumn I posted about some mystery plants which had suddenly started coming through in a large container on the front balcony. They were obviously some kind of bulb, but I couldn't for the life of me remember putting anything in there. What were they? Jan suggested "Those ones with the orange flowers, and I said, pseudo-knowledgeably, "Oh you mean Montbretia" - although I realised later that the picture I had in mind (and I suspect that Jan did too) was Crocosmia.

I love Crocosmia, so it was quite likely that I'd planted them. And the long sword-like leaves looked right. So crocosmia they were, I decided. And when the flower buds started to show, I was even more certain - long flower spikes with buds along the stem. They looked as if they were going to bloom around about the same time as the Honesty that was in the same container. Orange and violet - hmm, that would be noticeable.

They're now in bloom - and what have we got? Freesias.

Yellow white and purple ones - which go very nicely with the Honesty. So perhaps I planned it all along. Who knows? I still don't remember planting them. But they're very pretty...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Just when you least expect it...

At the end of 2009, I planted a couple of Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) bulbs in one of my larger containers. It was a bit late - they're supposed to go in in the autumn, and it must have been early December. But I thought I might just be inside the time limit.

Spring came and - nothing. Not so much as a sprout. So I thought I'd probably done my usual trick of overwatering (easy in the large containers) and had rotted the bulbs. I found out later that they are supposed to be planted on their sides to stop the water collecting in the tops. Don't you always find out that sort of thing afterwards...

Anyway, I forgot about them and planted other stuff, summer annuals and so on, in the container. And when winter came, cleared them out and left the container bare except for one little alyssum plant which I had no room for elsewhere. So I popped it in there on its own to overwinter, thinking that I'd move it in spring.

A few days ago, I went out to do just that. And here comes the Crown Imperial...

It must have just sat there all last year, biding its time.

Needless to say, I can't now remember what colour it is. Did I get the yellow ones? The orangey red ones? I'm going to have to find other stuff to plant in there which will go with either - and so much for my idea of that being my purple and white container this year.

Never mind. Nothing like a few surprises to keep the garden interesting...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Yo-yo weather

March - and the month that, here in Milan at least, we can really get going with the serious stuff. The beginning of the month was very mild - two weeks ago I was out on the balcony in a short-sleeved T-shirt. It was well over 18°C and so, finally, all the last remaining fleece came off the containers.

And then, well, all those seeds were just begging to go in. So I spent a happy Sunday afternoon sowing.

The veg went in first - everything from lettuce and herbs (to stay outside) and tomatoes, aubergines and peppers (to come inside for a few weeks). And then it was the turn of the flowers - antirrhinums, alyssum, calendula, marigolds .. and lots more.

When it got dark I came happily in to cook the evening meal, and turned the TV on to watch the news and weather forecast. And they were forecasting snow for Tuesday.

Well, it didn't happen. But wow, did the temperature drop. Down to below freezing at nights. So the fleece went back on all the containers, and I covered up the seed pots as best I could.

The cold weather (and some torrential rain) lasted a week or so and then the temperature gradually began to creep up again. We've been back around 18°C yesterday and today.

Until a couple of hours ago that is. Adelio and I went out this afternoon to get some bags of compost. It was bright and sunny, and as we went I took some photos of the plants and trees which we saw on the way. There's Forsythia everywhere, and blossom on the roadside trees. And though I'm not desperately keen on this plant (whose name I know but can never remember - I always think of Pieris, but it's not) it does look wonderful in the spring when the new reddish brown leaves contrast with the rest of the bush.

Spring seemed to have arrived.

We were only inside about twenty minutes, but when we came out the sky had turned black and there was clearly a megastorm on the way. We just made it home before it broke...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

We've overwintered well...

Over the past couple of weeks, the work of uncovering everything on the balcony and cleaning up has gone on. And I've been happily surprised how well everything has overwintered. I've lost one spider plant, and that's all.

The weather has stayed much the same since I last posted. With the exception of a few days when we had torrential rain, it's been a matter of warm sunny days but nights well below freezing. Down to -8°C according to Google, though I have to say I've not been out at 4am to check. So the fleece stays on - but the daytime temperatures, which have stayed up between 10°-15°C, have meant that everything is clearly coming back into growth.

When I attacked the back balcony, the first job was to sort out the chrysanthemums. I cut back all the dead flowers and shoots from last year...

... and there were the new shoots coming through. After last year's chrysanthemum experiment I shall certainly be leaving most of them on the old plants, even if I do take cuttings later on.

The sedum has come through well too, and the flower shoots are already forming. Usually it blooms in April, but it seems so far on that I wonder if it will be early this year.

Every other container I uncovered seemed to have wallflowers in it - which won't be a surprise if you were around last year when I rather exaggerated the number of seeds that I put in. They were mixed though - some yellow-brown ones that I'd collected from past plants, and some red ones from a packet. Needless to say I didn't label them or keep them separate. We'll see when they bloom...

Then there was the garlic. You may remember that I planted it in January. You may - but I didn't. I'd completely forgotten about it, and when I uncovered it, it had that look on its face that said : We know you drowned our predecessors last year, and we know that this year you promised not to overwater us - but come on ... we're not camels. Sorry lads.

But it was when I started on the office balcony that I got the best surprise : the pelargoniums are already coming into bloom. Not bad for February.

Now - I feel a bit guilty posting this pic just after Jan of Mud, Gorse and Pines has recently posted about the sorry state of hers... but Jan, I'm not gloating, really... promise... I'm not...

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The balcony is back...

In the last few days, temperatures have suddenly shot up. Walking home on Friday afternoon, I suddenly found myself unzipping my jacket and ripping off my woolly scarf because it was so warm. Don't know what the temperature was, but forecasts have been predicting anything up to 14°C (57°C) for Milan this weekend.

And on the way to the supermarket yesterday, I noticed that the new grass was coming through, and lawns were looking green again. Didn't even have to pretend to myself this year - it was clearly time time to uncover the balcony...

So this morning saw several hours of hard work out on the front. The fleece came off the containers huddled against the balcony wall and the dead stuff got thrown away. There was surprisingly little that hadn't made it, I was pleased to see. Most containers seemed more or less unscathed - like this one with the plants that surprised me by coming through last autumn (I'm more and more inclined to believe they're Montbretia), and a couple of Honesty.

Next, the railings and container holders, as well as the drip trays and the containers themselves, all got washed down - as did the tables. And then the fun started ...

For the past ten days or so, I've been "collecting". A visit to the garden centre last Sunday saw me coming home with a couple of bags of primroses and pansies, and when I was at the supermarket yesterday, and saw them putting out stuff that had just come off the lorry - well I couldn't resist.

So in they went, together with some other plants that had been keeping warm under the fleece since the autumn - like the cyclament I blogged about then.

But I wasn't the only one who'd decided that spring is just around the corner and it's time to wake up and start work again. While I was potting up the new plants, I had a visitor...

The first bee of the year - obviously pleased that he'd found somewhere where there were a few flowers. And very welcome he was too. May he be the first of many.

By the time I came in to make lunch, the sun had hit the balcony and the thermometer was showing 18°C (64°F). I'd stripped off the heavy Norwegian style sweater I use for winter gardening (I can't bear gardening in a jacket) and winter seemed only a memory.

But no - I'm not that naive. It's still only the first week in February, and a quick look at the forecasts for the next few days show that though daytime temperatures are staying up around 14°, at night it's going as low as -2°(28°F). So (if sadly) I left the tenderer plants, like my plumbago, close to the house, and wrapped them up again in fleece. The primula and pansies should have no problems, but there are a few biennials that I'm more worried about. Like the plants in the first container above. I think they're daisies, but have to admit that I can't really remember. But it's easy enough just to pop the fleece on at night and off again in the morning, using bulldog clips to hold it.

So there we are. The winter may not be over. But for the moment it looks as if we might be heading for an early spring. Or have I spoken too soon...

Thursday, January 27, 2011


My mother loathed starlings (sturnus vulgaris). She'd always put out bread for the birds, but then spend hours chasing off the starlings. Bullies she called them, only interested in "stealing" food from the little sparrows. Anthromorphism rules, OK.

There no longer seem to be either sparrows or starlings in my Lonon garden. I've posted before about the sparrow decline in London (they're still going strong in Milan fortunately), but the lack of starlings is odd. Because they're still in the area - the car park of our local supermarket is full of them. The cars don't daunt them in the slightest...

Why have they abandoned our area of parkland and gardens to move into a trading estate? No idea. Wouldn't have thought that an Asda car park was that rich on pickings. Could be the MacDonald's next door I suppose ...

Oi Bert! Them kids 'ave just dropped a carton. Sling us over a chip, would yer...

But perhaps it's not just that. According to the BBC Wildlife website, the population of starlings has dropped by 92% on previous figures. That certainly tallies with what I've seen in the garden.

Starlings are sensible birds. Some migrate, some don't - it depends where they live and what the winter conditions are like there. Birds from eastern Europe, where temperatures are harsh, will migrate, either to milder climates like Britain (is that why I no longer notice them so much - because I'm only there in the summer when numbers are reduced to the residents?) or south, to the real warmth. Here in Italy we see huge flocks arriving every year. Both in Milan and Rome, the sky outside the main station is often dark with them, and the air shrill with the squawking of up to 100,000 individuals. I wanted to make a video of them this year but (of course) missed them and had to make do with a few photos. During a walk down the Martesana canal in November, I noticed that they were gathering. Numbers were puny in comparison to some flocks that I've seen, but still dangerous. I had to go home and wash my hair afterwards...

Yet even a few who live in more temperate climes will sometimes up and go.
The RSPB site says "These birds are residents, and most never leave us..." - which presumably means that some do. So how do they decide ?

- Eh Fred. Decided what yer doin' fer yer 'olidays?
- 'allo Charlie. Well, yer know, things 'ave bin a bit tight recently. Me 'n the missis thought we might just stay at 'ome 'n 'ave a few days out. You?
- Oh going down ter Majorca fer a coupla months with the gang. Yer know who I mean?

Those that decide to stay at home sometimes find themselves in trouble when unexpectedly hard weather comes. This one, with 25 cms of snow on the ground, was reduced to attacking the feeders for the tits on my sister-in-law's balcony in Northern Germany this Christmas.

So if you've got some in your area, take no notice of my mother's prejudices. They're no longer the common garden bird that they once were. Ignore the pompous, aggressive strutting and squawking, and focus on that gorgeous metallic sheen on the plumage. Losing the starling would be as great a loss as losing the Bengal Tiger in my opinion. So put out some food and don't chase them off. Even starlings have to eat...

Sunday, January 23, 2011


It has been bitterly cold here for the last few days, with temperatures dropping to -8° at night. And we're not even officially into the three "days of the blackbird" at the end of the month, traditionally always the coldest of the year. (Why "days of the blackbird"? I blogged about it a couple of years ago. You'll find it here)

So I've found myself putting off the clearing up jobs that are waiting for me on the balcony, and I've spent the time giving my houseplants some TLC instead.

I have very few in the flat. It's quite dark, and most plants suffer from the lack of light. In the summer, in fact, they stop being houseplants and go out on the balcony, but in winter have to come in to protect them from the cold. But I do have a bit more luck in my office.

One of my favourites (apart from my beloved Pothos, Scindapsus or whatever you want to call it) are these little Spathiphyllums, Peace lilies. I got them last autumn (a present from some students - thank you Module 3 people) and they've been super all winter, blooming their little hearts out.

Native to the rain forests of Central and South America, Spathiphyllum thrives in slightly shady conditions. And so is well at home in the office where, except on the sunniest days of summer, I need a light on constantly. Being a tropical plant, it does like to stay warm though -keep it at over 15°C (60°F).

They come in all sizes from small to medium to large. I'm not sure what this one is. Possibly Spathiphyllum wallisii "Chopin", a dwarf cultivar. It's tiny in comparison to other spathiphyllums I've had in the past.

As a rain forest plant it likes to stay moist - though not soggy. Let it dry out and it will flop horribly. Don't panic however - as long as you catch it quite quickly and water well, it will pick up again as if nothing had happened. It's only fainted.

Like all houseplants, it needs to be kept clean. If the leaves get dusty then their stomata ( the plant version of skin pores) get clogged. Plants absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide to create their own food in the form of sugars, releasing oxygen as a waste product. This process, called photosynthesis, is impossible (or at least inefficient) if the stomata are clogged, and the plant will suffer (wouldn't you?).

Plants growing outside will be washed regularly by the rain, but in the house (or on a balcony) they need cleaning regularly. Use a soft sponge or cloth dipped in tepid water. You'll usually be horrified at how much muck comes off.

Smallish plants with tough leaves (like Scindapsus) can also be popped into the sink under a gentle stream of tepid water and given a shower. This is also a good way of getting rid of any pests like aphids and the dreaded red spider mite. Make sure though that any excess water that gets into the soil is allowed to drain off immediately.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


We're having a cold, nasty January. Temperatures aren't bad - around 2-3°C - but it's been foggy for days. Which means it's been a miserable, damp type of cold and everything is grey and dark. Summer mist can be beautiful. Winter fog isn't.

Needless to say not much is happening on the balcony, and I'm getting itchy. I want to get going again, but know it's too early. So when I saw these mini-houseplants in the supermarket yesterday, all at 1,50€, I didn't stand a chance of resisting. They were being sold separately, but I loved the contrasting leaf colours and thought they'd look good together. And bought them.

Dangerous. Because I had no idea what they were and what conditions they needed. The supermarket label announced that they were "piantine verdi" - small green plants. Wow, that's helpful. Did they need the same type of soil? Did they like the same amount of water. No idea. Buying plants without knowing what they are is, of course, the one thing you should never do. But you do, don't you? Please tell me it's not just me.

Anyway, once home, out came my wonderful, very old and very well thumbed houseplant book*. And I think I've managed to identify them all (I think - tell me if you disagree). They are, starting with the plant with the pink leaves at the back (weren't these supposed to be small green plants?) and moving around in clockwise order :

1. The Polka Dot plant
(Hypoestes phyllostachya also known as H. sanguinolenta) : Originally from Madagascar and likes warmth and humidity. No problem. Is also happy in shade good. My living room gets very little natural light. Can grow up to 2ft, so need their growing tips pinched out to stop them becoming straggly. Still no problem ..

2. Ivy
(Hedera) : Well, OK, I didn't really need to look this one up. Good in situations of poor light (phew!) and doesn't seem to be fussy about anything else.

3. The Aluminium plant
(Pilea cadierei) : I think this might be my favourite of the five - I loved the contrasting green and grey of the leaves. Native to Vietnam and sensitive to magnesium deficiency - needs a good dose of Epsom salts occasionally (a teaspoon in a pint of water.) That can be arranged. Likes a moist soil - no problems so far.

This one caused me a few problems. I couldn't find it at all. However, when I turned to the net it popped up on Plants are the Strangest People. It's a Peperomia, though I've not been able to identify the variety. My houseplant book does list them, but there are around 1,000 species in the genus and, not surprisingly, mine wasn't the one they'd chosen to illustrate. Doesn't like to be too moist and not keen on humidity.

5. Pellonia
(possibly Pellonia daveauava - try spelling that without looking three times) : Again likes warmth, humidity and moist soil.

So - the only problem might be the Peperomia, which seems to like cooler, drier conditions than the rest. Could have been worse, I suppose...


What is my wonderful, very old and well-thumbed houseplant book ?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Thank goodness for garlic... Part Two

When I was a child, growing up in South London, garlic was the epitome of foreignness. My mother wouldn't have touched it with a bargepole. It was one of those things, like snails, that the French ate, and therefore decidely beyond the pale. (When I got older, I did once point out that she would eat winkles at every chance she got, but received the reply, "Yes, but they're food.")

Back to garlic. Suffice to say that I had to wait till I left home before I discovered what it could do for food - eating it was one of those daring, "forbidden" new experiences which awaited me when I got to university.(Don't get excited - the others were things like curry and stirfries. Food plays a large part in my memories of uni.) And I was immediately hooked.

One of the reasons I'm obsessing over garlic at the moment is that it's the featured plant on this month's page of the garden calendar that I found under the Christmas tree this year. Santa (in the guise of my sister-in-law) brings me one every year. It's always garden related, and it gets pride of place in the kitchen all year. This year the focus is on herbs and spices, and January is garlic.

I talked in Part One of this post about how useful it is to deter insects and fungi in the garden. But of course, as well as being good for plants, it's equally good for us. Leaving aside its folkloristic reputation of protecting against the plague and vampires (though it might not hurt to take the odd plait with you next time you happen to be in Transylvania), it's recognised as being
good for the heart, and as protecting against some forms of cancer. This in addition of course to the anti-bacterial properties - something I tried out at Christmas when I managed to slice open my finger with a knife I'd been using to chop the stuff. Can't say it was the pleasantest experience I've ever had, but boy did that cut stay clean...

What was I making at the time? Garlic bread - one of those totally simple foods that always tastes as if it originated in heaven. I always make it to accompany roast chicken and turkey - I'll leave you to guess which I was cooking on Christmas day - but it goes well with a lot of pasta dishes, peppers, all sorts of things.

The easiest way to make it is just to make some vertical slashes in a baguette type loaf (or whatever you can get that's similar), and stuff each slash with a slice of butter and a slice of raw garlic. However, an alternative is to soften the butter first, crush the garlic, and mix the two together along with some finely chopped herbs - I usually use chives or parsley. Then stuff the cuts in the bread with the mix, as before.

Wrap the lot in foil and pop it in the oven at about 400F/200C/gas mark 6 for about ten minutes till the crust is crispy and golden.

OK - it's not the recipe to use if you've got a cholesterol problem or are trying to lose weight. Garlic is often touted as a way to lower cholesterol, but recent research doesn't seem to support the claim. I suspect this sort of garlic bread, with its heavy dependence on butter, was originally a French recipe. If you want something a bit more healthy, there is of course the Italian version, bruschetta, which is just slices of toasted bread plus garlic and tomato. I love Italian food, and much of the best of it are the traditional recipes of the poorer part of the population - one of the most delicious things I ever tasted was Panzanella - a "salad" made with stale bread, oil and tomatoes - a recipe invented so as not to waste left-over bread.

But back to bruschetta. To make bruschetta properly, you need unsalted Tuscan bread and to toast it over an open fire. If that's not possible, use what you can - but bear in mind that you need a trip to Italy if you're going to really understand what's so great about it. Rub a clove of garlic into the toasted bread, dribble some good olive oil over the top, add a bit of salt and a round of very thinly sliced tomato sprinkled with oregano. If all the ingredients are fresh and good quality, it's heaven.

Related Posts with Thumbnails