Monday, July 30, 2007

Talking Plants

Do you talk to your plants? OK, silly question. Don't we all ...

But do your plants talk back? I found
this video on the BBC the other day about a device which lets your plants talk to you and tell you when they want food and water. Check it out, it's weird ... The voices are supposed to reflect the personality or type of plant. So what they call a Scotch moss plant (doesn't look much like any sort of moss to me, more like ivy I reckon) gets a Scots accent.

What type of voice would you give your favourite plants? I have some red begonias at the moment that I'm sure would sound like Julie Walters playing Mrs Weasley in the Harry Potter films. And the container of antirrhinums would sound like a bunch of squabbling kids. Amaryllis would be far more up market and would be dubbed by someone like Claudia Schiffer. And then the roses - well, the voice of the Queen of course. And they'd tell us of the annus horribilis of blackspot, aphids, drought and not enough fertiliser ...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Happy Birthday Balcony Garden, Happy Birthday Dad

The Balcony Garden is one year old today. This time last year I was lying in bed, told by doctors to spend three weeks absolutely immobile after a leg operation. And I was fed up. We'd had to cancel our holiday for the second year in a row, I'd read every book the library had to offer, and I was sick of watching TV. Then my son said - Why don't you start a blog, Mum? My original reaction was What have I got to blog about? but the idea stuck, and germinated ...

What I didn't realise, the day I started writing, was that it was also my Dad's birthday. Fitting, because he was the most passionate gardener I've ever known. He would get up at five in the morning so as to get a couple of hours in the garden before he went to work, and over the twenty five years that he worked on the garden of our last house, turned it from a bramble infested jungle into perhaps the nicest garden of its size and type - ours was just a typical London Council house - I've ever seen. His passion was flowering shrubs, and the weigela, philadelphus, hydrangeas, crab apple etc that he planted are still there today. What was planted was subject to negotiation with my mother, who had no interest in gardening, but wanted her lawn, her rosebed, plenty of cut flowers for the house and a steady supply of fresh vegetables for the kitchen.

Rummaging through my photos today, I realised I have none that really reflect what it actually looked like by the end. The one above must have been taken about five to ten years after we moved into the house - late sixties or early seventies. A lot is not yet in place - the shrubs all down the side bed, and the conifer in front of the washing line post which has now grown to obscure it entirely.

At the time, gardening didn't interest me at all. Perhaps, just as well, as I don't think Dad would have taken kindly to anyone else touching his plants. But I inherited from him a large stack of gardening books, and most precious of all his notebooks.

Dad was a self-taught gardener. He left school at fourteen and today would undoubtedly be diagnosed as dyslexic. Reading was not easy and writing even less so. Yet he kept notes, year by year on what he had sown and when, what the gardening books recommended, and how successful they had been.

He died twenty years ago. Shortly afterwards we bought the house from the Council and it's now mine. Since my mother also died it's mostly been tenanted, but I sometimes get to go back for a couple of months in the summer. I've come to terms by now with the fact that tenants are rarely gardeners, and I always find it in a mess. So every few years summer generally means two months of painting, decorating and gardening. Which was the plan for this year, until yet again health problems kept me here. But next week I finally hope to get back. Watch this space.

Happy birthday Balcony Garden. Happy Birthday Dad.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Monarda - or things that go bump in the night

The plant featured on my calendar this month is Monarda didyma (the tall red flower at the back of the photo.) I’ve never actually grown it myself, but here’s a round-up of what the calendar, the web and my various gardening books have to say about it.

A perennial, monarda didyma grows to about three foot high, so looks best grown in clumps with smaller plants in front to hide the long stems. Leave room for air to circulate, however, as it is prone to attacks of powdery mildew. It prefers light but rich, moist soil and full sun, but will tolerate slight shade. It flowers from June onwards, and deadheading should produce a second flowering later in the year. In autumn, cut the plants back to about six inches in height.

Monarda is invasive, and will need dividing every three years or so in spring or autumn to stop it taking over, as underground runners gradually spread out. Throw away the old central part of the roots and replant the outer portions about a foot apart.

Because of it’s spreading characteristic, it’s a typical “passalong” plant, but if you can’t find anyone to give you some, it can also be grown from seed. For sowing instructions see
here. Other sites say it won’t always bloom the first year, though.

The name Monarda comes from Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish botanist who popularised the herbal use of the plant in Europe. Didyma is a Greek word meaning twin which one web source says refers to the two stamens in each flower, but could also refer to the paired leaves.

Commonly known as Bergamot, Bee Balm, Oswego Tea, Indian Nettle or various other names, Monarda is indigenous to eastern and central regions of North America. There are about 16 Monarda species and colours can range through white to scarlet or purple. Various Monarda species contain the antiseptic thymol, also found in thyme and oregano. Thymol acts as a fungicide and bactericide, and also against some parasites, and the monardas were used by different groups of Native Americans for purposes ranging from alleviating bee stings (hence the name bee balm) to bringing down a high temperature, combating heart disease, insomnia, flatulence, skin disorders and regulating menstrual flow. Non-medicinal purposes included preserving meats. It got the name Oswego tea when the Oswego tribe introduced it to settlers as a substitute for Indian tea after the Boston tea party, when supplies of tea leaves were becoming scarce. To make the tea, steep a teaspoonful of dried leaves and flowers in a cup of boiling water, and leave for ten minutes before draining. It can be sweetened with honey and has a taste reminiscent of that of Earl Grey tea, though apparently leaves harvested before and after the plants flower will have a different taste. The tea can be drunk hot or iced.

The young leaves and flowers can also be eaten in salads, especially with tomatoes, or a couple of leaves can be added to drinks or used to flavour meats such as duck, veal and pork – use it as an alternative to sage in stuffings. Or you can use the leaves in your bath or in pot pourri for their perfume

In the garden, growing monarda is a great way of attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects, and – if you’re lucky enough to have them – hummingbirds. Grown in conjunction with vegetables, it will discourage various soil pests.

Two cautions : firstly thymol taken in large quantities can provoke uterine cramps and is therefore not recommended during pregnancy. And secondly, according to various sources on the web, monarda will develop psychic powers. So if you start to hear things going bump in the night, it could just be due to that soothing cup of Oswego tea you thought was going to cure your insomnia …

Friday, July 20, 2007

This Year's Failures - 2

I've had several plants this year which have seemed to be growing well, but haven't bloomed. Apart from the ones I mentioned in my last post, there's my Philadelphus, which has got much bigger and looks quite happy, but didn't flower at all. It's only the second year I've had it - is it just too early or am I doing something wrong?

And in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture you can just about see a pink mesembrantheum which I can hardly ever get to flower. Yes, I know I should restrict the amount of water it gets, and I do. I got about five flowers last year, but this year again nothing.

A much bigger disappointment though has been my Mandevilla. I got it from the garden centre last year when it was small but already in flower. It continued to bloom all summer, and also grew considerably. To get it through the winter I cut it back and took it indoors, where it continued to grow back all winter - it didn't seem to rest at all, and I wonder if that might be the problem. It went back outside in the spring and is now growing up a trellis against the wall of the balcony. There have been two problems - firstly that it's lost a lot of lower leaves - they gradually turn yellow and drop, though I can't see any pests and don't think watering is the problem - and secondly, it hasn't flowered at all. Not enough sun perhaps? The balcony wall only gets direct sun for a fairly limited amount of time each day.

And then there's this lot - irises, calla lilies and agapanthus. I planted the agapanthus and the irises in December - OK, not the best time. The irises have hardly done anything - next year perhaps ? But the agapanthus seem to be doing OK except for the lack of flowers. My books say they flower July to September, so I'll keep hoping for a bit longer. The calla on the other hand have been in there for three years now, and every year it's the same - great leaves but no flowers. What's my mistake?

Monday, July 16, 2007

This Year's Failures - 1

I said in my last post that there were a few plants on the balcony which I've had to give up on - they've either done generally badly or just haven't bloomed. This is the case of four plants on the back balcony - my hollyhocks, lychnis, sweet peas and foxgloves. The first three are in the photo, and the fourth would have been but it finally died completely.

After last year's really good results, I was particularly disappointed by the hollyhocks, Althaea rosea. I'd planted loads, intending them to be a focal point this year, but though a good number made it, they've remained very small and haven't flowered at all. they were also amonst the plants most damaged by the caterpillar plague, as you can see from the photo.

The caterpillars don't explain the weak growth, however. I did a couple of things differently this year, any one of which might have made the difference. Firstly, I didn't sow them direct but in small pots, and then potted on gradually. Secondly, they were all on the back balcony rather than the front - and nothing does as well there. Next time, needless to say, I'll be sowing direct and out front. Being at the back also meant they were in different containers. Was it a size problem? I don't think so as there wasn't really any difference. Was the soil not rich enough? Did I sow too late - the books say May, but mine always go in in September. I can't keep seedlings over the summer - my plant sitter always drowns them while I'm on holiday - and as we have a long warm autumn here, I can usually get away with sowing biennials as soon as I get back in September. It certainly didn't cause problems with the previous plants.

So - do I start again, or should I just move these out front, and see what happens the second year? One thing I hate about gardening books (and there are others - but that's for another post) is that they often tell you things without giving an adequate explanation. In this case, concerning hollyhocks - "They are often treated as biennial plants though true perennials". (from
Percy Thrower's Everyday Gardening - one of the old gardening books I inherited from my Dad but still find really useful. I mentioned it in a previous post last September.) OK, but why? Is it because they're invasive or get too big otherwise? Because they don't flower so well in successive years? Because they don't make it through a hard winter? Tell me why Percy and I can decide what I want to do.

One of the other plants in the photo, Lychnis coronaria, seemed to be growing as well as usual, but just didn't flower. They like sun - maybe they didn't get enough - except that in this case they were in just the same position as last year, and last year flowered.

The sweet peas, lathyrus odoratus, are very sad as you can see, and were pulled out as soon as the photo was taken. I love sweet peas and try obstinately to grow them here even though I know that they hate the hot, humid conditions that we have. The same thing happens every year. They're doing well in spring, but then succumb to red spider mite - and no amount of spraying seems to make a difference. Last year I got one flower spray from them. It's the most I've ever achieved.

Much the same happens with my foxgloves, digitalis purpurea. They seem to be doing well all spring, but never flower. And then when the heat sets in give up the ghost. Here I wonder if I might not do better if I could sow earlier - that way they might be ready to flower while it was still relatively cool.

Sadly, these are not the only plants which haven't done well this year. More in the next post ...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A much neglected balcony ...

I was having a look at other people's blogs today and, when I got to Carol's, saw she had posted for Gardener's Bloom Day. Why so early? I thought, convinced it must be something like the tenth today. Time flies ...

If you drop in regularly, you'll have noticed that I've not been posting much at all recently, and the posts that I have managed to get up have ignored the balcony all together. Unfortunately, I've been hit by a nasty attack of the dreaded lurgy which has had me covered in hives and swelling up painfully - especially my hands. Not ideal for either gardening or typing. Back in June I mentioned it, saying I thought it was an allergy. But no, it's a virus. So I have to apologise to the loquat tree yet again, this time for false accusations. I've spent most of the past two months lying down covered in packs of ice. The doctors have cheerily said that it's not serious and will pass of its own accord in three or four months - perhaps a bit longer. Gee thanks.

All this to explain why the balcony is currently a bit of a disaster. I've hardly been out there except to water. Add to that the fact that half of it was destroyed by the caterpillar plague of a couple of months ago, and that I had actually intended to be in England for July and August and so hadn't planted anything which would bloom in those months. All made worse by the fact they came to repair part of the balcony railing the other day. A chunk had fallen off the balcony above, and an inspection showed that all the balconies on our corner were suffering from rust and needed to be seen to urgently. Which meant they had to move half my containers - not terribly gently. They're all now piled up at one end while we finish repainting. Or rather while my husband does. I'm using the few hours a day when the pills kick in and I have full use of my hands for other things.

So - what is blooming on the balcony. Not a lot, but a few things are coming on. The plumbago which I featured last month is still blooming strongly, as are the geraniums. The periwinkles are doing well too. The only one in bloom is one I picked up at the garden centre, but I've also got a few which were grown from seed which are coming on well. Periwinkles are a funny flower. I find them difficult to start off, but once they're established they don't seem to be bothered by pests, diseases or any amount of neglect. The antirrhinums got their second wind and have been good over the past few weeks, especially one beautiful bushy plant which was covered in pale pink flowers, and the zinnias and marigolds have come into bloom. The zinnias in particular made a sudden spurt just after I'd said last month that they weren't doing well. They've doubled in size and, apart from the blooms already out, are covered in buds. The melons are in bloom and starting to form fruit, and my little oleander has bloomed. There are several plants that I've had to give up on though, and accept that if they haven't flowered by now they're not going to. This year's failures. But that can be the subject of the next few posts ...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

In Defence of Marrows

A post by Carol of May Dreams Gardens made me laugh the other day. She was bemoaning the fact that she'd forgotten to check her zucchini (courgettes to the British - not to mention the French) and they'd exploded into growth overnight. I grew up having no idea they could be eaten small! In fifties and sixties England they were always left to get huge before we harvested, and for us they were called marrows. I must have been in my late teens before I came across these suspiciously foreign-looking things called courgettes that they ate in France. And it was a long time afterwards that it clicked that they weren't a "new" vegetable, but nothing but baby marrows. I still have a cookbook which I bought in about 1971 when I went to university. It's called The Robert Carrier Cookbook and is a book I still use regularly - his recipes always seem to work, even when it's me doing the cooking. He says : Courgettes, once so hard to come by in Britain in any but the most exotic food departments of the major London stores, are now available in regular supply in shops throughout the country. I suspect that time they were still pretty trendy, however. I doubt you would have found them at our local Co-op.

But however much I like courgettes (especially raw and grated with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice), now when I grow them I always leave some to get big. I love cooking marrows. If you type baked marrow into Google you'll come up with loads of recipes, both vegetarian and otherwise. For all of them you need to cook (or part-cook) the marrow first, and then add the stuffing or topping. Cut off the two ends and then either cut it in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds to make two canoe shaped containers for the filling, or cut it in thick rings and again scoop out the seeds to leave a hole for the filling. Bake it smeared with olive oil and covered in a medium oven (180°C, 350°F or Gas 4) for about thirty to forty minutes - you need the flesh to have become soft but not soggy.

While it's baking, make the filling. One of my favourites is button mushrooms, brown rice and cheese - cook the rice, and at the same time fry the mushrooms in half oil half butter, covered so that the juices don't evaporate. When the rice is cooked, add it to the mushroom pan and reheat uncovered until the juices have been almost absorbed or evaporated. At that point, add the cheese and let it melt into the mixture. What cheese you use will depend on your taste - I like Gorgonzola while my son won't touch it unless I've used processed cheese slices. Fill the marrow halves with it and serve.

Or try marrow peeled and cut into cubes, then baked for 40-50 minutes together with skinned, sliced tomatoes, chopped onion and thinly sliced celery. Smear a casserole dish with olive oil or butter,and put in alternate layers of the vegetables. Add a little salt, sugar and pepper to each layer. Finish with a layer of marrow and a few chunks of butter or a bit of olive oil - enough to soak through the layers, but don't exaggerate. Cover tightly and bake in a medium oven as above for forty or fifty minutes.

Of course, any marrow recipe can be used with courgettes too. And even I would admit that if for the rest of my life I could only eat either cougettes or marrows, I'd choose courgettes. But it's fun to grow them - if you're trying to get your kids involved in gardening, they'll have fun seeing how big they can get. And then, and what's wrong with having something slightly different on the table occasionally?

I'm not growing marrows on the balcony this year, so thanks to citricut for making the photo available under Creative Commons Licence on flickr.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sadly, not my balcony ...

Had a couple of days away last week to see my brother who was on holiday in Liguria. We took a boat ride from Santa Margherita to San Fruttuoso and stopped at Portofino on route. There are some fabulous villas there. I could kill for their bougainvillea ...

The whole area was full of it. Liguria is the area on the north-east coast of Italy, and as you can see from the photos, the coast borders immediately on the mountains - the southernmost part of the Alps. They're very low here - the locals refer to them as hills rather than mountains - and heavily wooded, particularly with chestnut trees. On the coast, the mild Mediterranean climate means that the vegetation is fantastic, with a mix of endemic mediterranean plants, and imported North African and tropical varieties, which flourish. I'd have taken far more photos, particularly of one gorgeous purple flowered vine, which was everywhere - but the batteries in the camera ran out.

Bougainvillea (bougainvillea spectabilis is the most commonly seen) is itself one example of an imported tropical plant, as it comes originally from South America. It was discovered by a botanist, Philibert Commerson, who named it after the captain of the ship he was travelling on - Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Bougainvillea are part of the Nyctaginaceae family, and therefore cousins of mirabilis jalapa, which I've posted about before. The brilliant purple colour comes from the bracts, not from the flowers. They can be grown in pots, but need a lot of sun and dry conditions, and constant warmth - one reason why I've never tried it on the balcony here is because I doubt I could get it through our winters, which are much colder than in Liguria. In colder climates it needs heated greenhouse or conservatory conditions - at least 5°C in winter. One UK grower, David's Exotic Plants, lists varieties which are described as "tough", but unfortunately they don't give details of what they mean by this. How tough is tough? The one on my neighbour's balcony is not doing too well, incidentally. The bracts have lost colour, whereas they should stay vibrant for months. They may have overwatered it, or maybe the red spider mite have hit. Or perhaps they're not feeding it enough - a fertiliser that's high in phosphorus and potassium helps to maintain the colour.

Back to the boat trip. San Fruttuoso is an old monastery nestled at the foot of the mountain ...

Although you can't see it from this picture, just the other side of the landing stage was a load of prickly pear, all in bloom ...

Prickly pear is native to North and South America. I can't work out if this one is opuntia littoralis or opuntia ficus indica - they both look the same to me and both have been imported to and are now common in southern Europe. In Italy however, opuntia ficus indica seems to be most common, and in Sicily and a few other southern regions, is cultivated for it's edible fruit -Fichi d'india, or Indian figs. They're easily available in the shops, though I have to say I've never tried them - perhaps I will now. But the sculptor Bernini must have liked them - he sculpted them into his Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona in Rome.

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