Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Curious Incidents ...

If you’re looking for something different to read, try Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night-Time : The Fantastic Story of the Disappearing Night by Allan Shepherd. Published by the Centre for Alternative Technology Publications, it starts off as an extended short story – the story of an amateur naturalist who is passionate about moths, and who has designed his garden to contain night-scented plants which will attract them. Each night he records the species he captures, (he doesn’t kill them, just collects and records the species then lets them go), and notes which ones are slowly disappearing due to global warming and other factors. The blurb on the cover uses words like magical, eloquent and beautifully written and I’d add beautifully illustrated and designed. At the end of the book Shepherd lists his inspirations, which are The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time, The Little Prince, To Kill a Mockingbird, Walden and the film It’s a Wonderful Life. If you know these and can imagine them all rolled up into one book, that’s what this book is. And like these books, the overall feeling is positive. He’s talking about the extinction of thousands of species, but the end of the story suggests that there is, after all, hope.

The unusual part of the book, though, is not the story at all. The moth collector keeps a notebook on ecology, called the Memory Book. The second part of Curious Incidents are extracts from the Memory Book, which is partially on gardening – in particular creating a garden to attract wildlife in general and moths in particular – partially on evolution, global warming, and partially on the moth collector’s own memories (though these extracts are included in the first half rather than the second). It includes extracts from other writers, results of the moth collector’s own research, web references, and lovely illustrations.

I received the book as a present, and it couldn’t have been better chosen - thank you, Alison. You can find it on Amazon, along with some other of Shepherd's books.
I think The Little Book of Garden Villains looks quite fun …

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sage Advice

At the beginning of the year I promised to tell you each month what was on the super plant calendar which I got for Christmas. The plant on the January page is sage – salvia officinalis.

Officinalis in the name means that it’s considered a medicinal plant, and in fact the calendar specifically features plants which can be used in herbal remedies. The name salvia comes from the Latin verb meaning to save and, according to the calendar, there’s an Arab proverb which says Why should anyone die when they’ve got sage in the garden? - although
Wikipedia attributes that one to Martin Luther. There’s also supposed to be an English saying which goes Eat sage in May and you’ll not die, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it before.

Most of the remedies the calendar describes were already familiar – sage is good in a mouthwash for sore throats, inflamed gums and so on. But it also said that it’s good for the digestion and that it contains flavenoids which fight free radicals and strengthen the immune system. And the one that I hadn’t heard of at all was that, combined in a tea with other ingredients it helps stop hot flashes during the menopause. The recipe for that was to combine 20g each of sage,
hops, hawthorn, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and downy hemp nettle, and combine 2 tablespoons of the mixture with hot water. Let it stand for five minutes before straining. Two hours before going to bed, you drink two cups of the stuff, lukewarm. Can’t say I’ve tried it because I’m not sure where to get my hands on some downy hemp nettle, but if I do I’ll let you know if it works. We’ll see if the medicinal sections are a bit more authoritative than the proverbs.

Joking apart, if you do want to try it, the writer (Ursel Buehring) is a well-known German writer and presenter of TV programmes on herbal remedies, so she should know what she’s talking about. On some of the other pages there are warnings about possible side effects and so on, but nothing is mentioned here. I’ve checked all the herbs though, and it seems you should be careful of hawthorn if you’re already on heart medication, and hops if you suffer from depression. And don’t be tempted to go and pick downy hemp nettle yourself unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing – other members of the genus are poisonous. All in all, perhaps I’ll give this one a miss – but I’ve added links to descriptions of the herbs if you want to check them out for yourselves.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Primroses and hurricanes

The crazy weather continues and half of Europe has had a hurricane. It stopped at the Alps and we’ve not had so much as a breeze here, but the TV pictures have been horrific. I’ve just done a round of UK blogs to see if anyone had posted about it, but it’s too early. They’re probably still all out clearing up.

Instead we’ve been basking in the sunshine. Temperatures were 27°C in Turin yesterday – that’s about 80°F. We “only” had 18°C (about 65°F) and today it’s dropped to 14° but that’s still spring temperatures. In January I would expect it to be somewhere between -6 and +5°. The plants don’t know if they’re coming or going (literally) and, according to the TV, yesterday there were butterflies fluttering around. I went out to do a general tidy up this morning (and to enjoy the sunshine) and saw that I’ve got annuals from last year – nasturtiums, alyssum, petunias and so on - that are still going strong, and that loads of stuff which has self-seeded is starting to come through. I’d be tempted to start sowing other stuff – except that they say there’s snow on the way for next week. The sudden drop in temperature will probably kill off a lot of things, so I’ll cover everything with fleece on Monday in an attempt to lessen the shock.

I have succumbed to the early spring feeling though – I went out and bought some primroses . They’re probably my favourite spring flower, and when I go and buy them I always feel that the growing year is starting up again. I have to get them each year from the nursery as, try as I might, I can’t keep them over the summer – the heat and direct sunlight of the balcony is just too extreme for them. Last year I made a special effort to keep them cool and shaded, and actually got one through to September. But in order to shade it I had to hide it so well that I then forgot about it for a week – and found it eaten up by red spider mite.

Monday, January 15, 2007


The photo is from back in November, but it's one I never got around to posting ...

There’s a game of virtual tag circulating the net at the moment, and as I’ve been tagged twice in the past couple of days, I decided I can’t really get out of it. My taggers were
She who digs and James – who’s not a gardener as far as I know but works in EFL as I do, though he also seems to run a thousand and one blogs and sites on different topics.

The idea is that if you’re tagged you have to tell people five things they didn’t already know about you (and probably didn’t want to, but never mind). So here goes. I’ve been racking my brains for things related at least vaguely to gardening, but haven’t come up with much, so you’ll have to put up with some general stuff.

1. Not so much about me, but a memory from school – and this one at least is about gardening. When I was a child London County Council (yes, that long ago) used to give every school child a couple of daffodil bulbs in the autumn and a few candytuft and clarkia seeds in the spring, and there was a competition. You grew your plants in a pot and then they were judged and you got a grade like highly commended or whatever. I bet they don’t do it any more, but what a pity. I remember really enjoying growing them, and who knows how many kids developed an interest in gardening later in life due to that first experience.

2. I used to be very into amateur theatre and when I was at university was one of four local organisers for the National Student Drama Festival – probably one of the best weeks of my life, even though it probably also shortened it considerably. I probably wouldn’t have thought about it except that the other day I found a list on the net of all the past festivals, the performances at each and the organisers. And there I was.

3. I once got vetted by MI6 because I’d been teaching a guy who turned out to be a Bulgarian spy and got thrown out of the country – the spy, not me.

4. I would love to go into outer space and my biggest regret is that by the time space travel is an everyday occurrence, I won’t be.

5. One thing I have to admit – I talk to teddy bears.

Now I have to tag other people who I'd like to know more about – sorry about this folks. So it’s
Carol and John for gardening and Katie for EFL. I think it’s supposed to be five others, but I can’t afford that many enemies ….

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! First of all, here are the answers to the Christmas quiz (because I know you can’t wait) : 1b (my Christmas sprouts had obviously been well frosted, because they were delicious), 2c (don't try this at home), 3a, 4c, and 5 mistletoe.

I hope you had a good Christmas holiday. One person who certainly did was Trillium, who won the BBC Gardener of the Year award. Well, she really won it in the autumn, but couldn’t tell anyone until the programme was shown last Saturday. Luckily she had the sense to keep a secret blog describing what happened during the days of the competition and it’s now on-line. As it’s in blog format, you have to go back to the earliest posts and read it in date order, but it’s well worth the scrolling. You can also find out about it on the
BBC website. And just in case anyone is wondering, Joe Swift - the presenter of the programme - is not, as far as I know, any relation. But he does seem to have the Swift chin, not to mention a very similar hairline to other males of the family. In fact he bears a decided resemblance to my brother .... perhaps I should do some research.

My Christmas was great. As usual we went to Aachen in Germany where my sister-in-law lives. We usually spend half the time tobogganing, but this year it was so mild, there was no chance. Except for Christmas Day when it suddenly, and temporarily, dropped to minus 3°. As it had been plus 8° the day before, the condensation just covered all the trees and plants with ice. These photos were taken on Christmas morning, when we went out for a walk after we’d opened our presents.

But not the next one. Before I went away, I decided to move all my plants next to the walls of the house, and cover the most delicate with fleece, just in case the temperature dropped while we were gone. And look what I found – a petunia in bloom on December 21st. If that’s not evidence for climate change, I’m not sure what is.

I had two gardening related presents this year. Firstly, a calendar focusing on a different plant each month and the herbal remedies associated with it. It’s in German so I’ll have to get my dictionary out, but I’ll let you know month by month what it says. And the second one was from some friends who gave me this lovely set of cards and envelopes, homemade with photos of flowers from their own garden. A super idea and one I shall copy next year.

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