Sunday, December 30, 2007

Review of the Year

As it´s the end of the year, I thought a look back at what 2007 brought might be timely. So here goes ...

January : We started the year in Germany, with an ice storm, but apart from that it was a fairly quiet month, the highlight being reading what was probably the best book I came across in 2007 - Curious Incidents in the Garden at Nighttime.

February : February brought us the coldest weather of an exceptionally mild winter. For the first time the temperature dropped below zero, and it was time to cover up all the plants - something I usually need to do in early December.

March : The cold weather didn´t last long though, and in March spring was back. The plum tree outside the balcony was in full bloom, and I saw both the first butterfly and the first caterpillar - little did I know at the time what a plague they would be this year, and that I´d be finding them right up to December.

April : April started with a visit to the annual Easter Monday flower market in Milan. By now, all my spring flowers were in full bloom, and on the 15th I joined in for the first time to Gardener´s Bloom Day.

May : Only three posts in May - we had visitors and it was a busy time. I continued with my monthly posts on the calendar I´d been given for Christmas, which focused each month on a different plant and its medicinal uses. This month´s plant was calendula - recommended for the treatment of skin complaints.

June : By June the caterpillar plague was really under way and I was losing plants right left and centre. As I don´t like killing anything, I was picking them off several times a day and trying to persuade them to stay in my caterpillarium - but they still kept coming.

July : July started with a weekend in Liguria, where the climate - and thus the vegetation - is quite different from here. I also started posting regularly again after being ill for a while. Unfortunately it wasn´t only the blog that had been neglected but also the balcony, with predictable results. I also posted about this year´s failures - so numerous it ended up as a two-part post. I suspect late planting was the reason for the pitiful growth and lack of flowers on plants like my hollyhocks but it didn´t explain the lack of flowers on the mandevilla, which grew happily all year but failed to produce a single bloom.

August : In August I was back at my house in london - and spent nearly the whole of the month clearing the garden and fighting against the borage which had completely taken over. By the time I left it was looking tidy, if a bit bare. I planted as much as I could at that time of year - who knows if it´s come up?

September : Most of my September posts were still about the garden, as I had no internet access while I was away. Although I think I manage to grow quite a lot on the balcony, a garden certainly provides more to write about. As well as the plants, there are also the birds and other wildlife that visit. Back on the balcony, the only wildlife I was meeting were the caterpillars, which were again wreaking havoc and destruction.

October : October brought the first autumn flowers, though as it was still warm the summer flowers kept goin too. I also posted for the first time on my Crassula Ovalis - whose name at the time I didn´t know - and which I shall post about again in the next week or so.

November : November started with th the four days of the Garden Blogger´s Carnival - which linked to posts from other blogs. Day One focused on the theme of wildlife in the garden, Day Two on vegetable gardening, Day Three on winter gardening, while Day Four was - well a bit of a hotchpotch. Thanks again to everyone who took part. There´ll be news of a new carnival posted in early January - this time with a difference.

December : And that brings us almost up to date. December saw a visit to the annual Craft Fair in Milan to buy bulbs, where amonst the daffodils and tulips I also found the "Monster from the Deep", Eremurus. Then thoughts turned to Christmas with the Christmas Quiz, and a few days ago, as well as celebrating Christmas itself, we celebrated the 100th post on the Balcony Garden.

And that´s the review of the year. If you´d like to do one of your own, just leave a comment once you´ve posted, so that we know where to find you. And in the meantime ...

Have a Very Happy New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Crack the champagne ...

Crack the champagne! Not only is it Christmas, but the Balcony Garden is 100 today. One hundred posts that is. We've been going for 17 months, so that's an average of 5-6 posts per month. But recently it's been more, with eight posts in November and nine, so far, this month. My goal is at least two posts a week, to get to 200 by Christmas next year. We shall see ...

Happy Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 21, 2007

My 2007 Calendar - December

We've finally arrived at December, and at the last page of my 2007 calendar. This month's plant is hedera helix - English ivy.

I hadn't heard of it as a medicinal plant before, but checking on the web found that it's a common remedy in Germany for dry coughs. As this is a German calendar, it's not surprising that that was one of the uses mentioned. However, the use that interested me most was as a remedy for cellulite. In case like me you belong to the orange peel thighs group, here's the recipe:

Take a handful of ivy leaves (carefully - the sap can irritate the skin), 10g of rosemary leaves, 10 grams of fennel seeds, half a ginger tuber, 15g of juniper berrries, and the finely chopped peel of one lemon. Put everything into a glass container together with half a litre of cold-pressed olive oil or sunflower oil. leave it in a warm place and shake daily for 3 weeks. Then drain and store in a dark bottle. The massage oil will be ready in 3-6 months and should be rubbed in vigourously daily. Well, that's what the calendar says ...

Hedera helix is of course only one species of ivy, and every species has loads of varieties. Click here to see some of them. Ivy generally prefers slightly alkaline soils - if you're trying to grow it in an acid soil area, add lime. most types are hardy, but some canariensis varieties will succumb to frost. Dark leaved types are fine for growing up exposed northern facing walls, while yellow and silver leaved varieties prefer full sun.

There are various myths associated with ivy. In Greek and roman mythology it is associated with the god Dionysus/Bacchus - the god of wine. When Dionysus was born his stepmother Hera tried to kill him. So his nurses, the Nymphai Nysiades, covered his cradle with ivy-leaves to keep him hidden and safe. Later, when once he had been kidnapped and was being taken to Egypt to be sold as a slave, Dionysus made ivy grow around the oars and sails of the boat he was on, clogging them and preventing the boat from making progress.

Dionysus is often portrayed wearing a wreath of ivy and the association of the plant with the god of wine led to the plant being seen as a cure for intoxication. Greek and Roman drinkers would wear ivy wreaths to protect them from the effects of alcohol - you could give it a try at Christmas I suppose.

The trouble with ivy of course is that its aerial roots can damage brickwork when growing up walls and houses, and can gradually smother trees. In this context, my favourite ivy poem is Hardy's The Ivy Wife. But who knows if he was really talking about the plant ..

I LONGED to love a full-boughed beech
And be as high as he:

I stretched an arm within his reach,

And signalled unity.

But with his drip he forced a breach,

And tried to poison me.

I gave the grasp of partnership

To one of other race--

A plane: he barked him strip by strip

From upper bough to base;

And me therewith; for gone my grip,

My arms could not enlace.

In new affection next I strove
To coll an ash I saw,

And he in trust received my love;

Till with my soft green claw

I cramped and bound him as I wove...

Such was my love: ha-ha!

By this I gained his strength and height
Without his rivalry.

But in my triumph I lost sight

Of afterhaps. Soon he,

Being bark-bound, flagged, snapped, fell outright,

And in his fall felled me!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The 2007 Christmas Quiz

Christmas is getting close, and for a couple of weeks now Milan has been full of Christmas trees and Christmas lights. This year's Christmas tree in the centre of town is said to be the largest in Italy, so it's a good starting place for this year's quiz. Not sure if this one is tougher than last year's or not. I thought it would be, but when I looked back last year wasn't so easy either. You decide. You'll find the answers below the questions - but no cheating.

1. Like most Christmas trees, the Milan tree is a fir. But what's the genus name of the various species of fir tree?

a) Picea b) Pinus c) Abies d) Taxus

2. Did you get a poinsettia this year? I tend to avoid them as they're far too fussy about temperature for my liking. What temperature range can they stand (approximately)?

a) 10-21° b) 6-25° c) 3-30° d) 12-30°

OK, OK - I'll repeat that in Fahrenheit ...

a) 50-70° b) 43-77° c) 38-86° d) 54-86°

3. Harry Potter's wand has a connection with Christmas plants. Why ?

a) He found it under a Christmas tree. b) It's made of wood from the holly tree. c) It derives its magical properties from the sap of the Poinsettia. d) It contains a mistletoe berry.

4. The use of holly as a Christmas decoration derives from its use in the celebrations surrounding the winter solstice by ...

a) The ancient Sumerians b) The ancient Greeks c) The Celts d) The Romans

5. There are many species of mistletoe and a different species is used in the US at Christmas to the species used in the UK. Which is which?

a) Viscum album b) Phoradendrum serotinum

6. Brussel sprouts, a traditional part of Christmas dinner, are very good for you. Why?

a) They're high in Vitamin C.
b) They contain folic acid.
c) They contain vitamin D.
d) They're low in fat and are only about 10 calories each.

How did you get on ? Scroll down and you'll find the answers. While you're doing it I ought to say that the photo was taken by my son - he seems to get a lot more out of the camera than I can. Thanks sweetheart.

Keep going ...

A bit more ...

OK- here you are.

1c, 2a, 3b, 4b, 5 a - UK, b - US, 6 - all of them!

How did you do ?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Giant waterlilies and smelly flowers

This is really old news but I've only just caught up with it. The BBC has teamed up with YouTube and now has a site dedicated to showing short clips of its own programmes. Browsing through them the other day I came across a collection of clips, each 2-4 minutes long, from documentaries by David Attenborough, many of them from his series The Private Life of Plants. Two particularly caught my attention - one about the Giant Waterlilies of the River Amazon (with super time-lapse photography), and another about the Titan Arum. The photo above shows the water lily leaves, and was taken by my son on holiday at Lake Maggiore some years ago.

Neither of the two are exactly the sort of flower I could put on the balcony - the waterlilies have leaves six foot across and the Titan Arum a flower which is nine feet high - with a smell that I think the neighbours might well complain about. Luckily for us, if not for David Attenborough, smell doesn't come over on video. Happy viewing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Gardener's Bloom Day - December

What have I got blooming on the balcony at the moment? A lot more than I should have - geraniums, pansies, marigolds, alyssum, antirrhinums and campanula. Crazy. Plus a few chrysanthemums hanging on in there, and some cyclamen. Despite the fact that the temperature has dropped radically, they don't seem to have noticed. It's been down to about -2° every night this week, though back up to around ten in the daytime.

Because of that, I have started covering things up. And by the end of this week it will be complete, with everything put to bed for at least a month. The first week in January is usually the coldest week of the year here, so better safe than sorry.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I've been tagged ...

Leslie of Growing a Garden in Davis has tagged me to write eight things that I'm make me happy. So here goes. I've decided to leave out the personal stuff - if I gushed too much my son would die of embarassment; if I didn't my husband would divorce me. I'll concentrate instead on gardening.

1. Early mornings in spring when I rush out on the balcony and find that my seeds have germinated overnight and are poking their little heads through the soil.

2. Finding new plants that I've never seen before - like my monster from the last post.

3. Sitting on the balcony eating cornflakes at about five in the morning in the middle of summer, the only time of the whole day when the temperature and the humidity are bearable, listening to the dawn chorus and looking at my plants with no-one to disturb me.

4. That day in June when suddenly everything is in flower and looking its best.

5. Neighbours saying "How do you manage to have such a lovely balcony?" (OK, not the most noble of the things on the list, but a least you know I'm being honest.)

6. The fact that when I've seen seed pods or plants I'd like a cutting of in other people's gardens, and asked if I can take them, no-one has ever, ever said no or been in any way offended. On the contrary, it's usually meant spending the next twenty minutes having a guided tour of the garden chatting about where they got the plant, how it's performed for them, what else they've got in their garden - and being offered four or five more things that I'd not even seen from the road.

7. Seeing plants which I've brought from my London garden, either as seeds or cuttings, growing on the balcony. And, when I go to London, taking seeds and cuttings from the balcony to plant there. It makes me feel constantly connected to both places.

8. Sunday mornings, which is the time I work on most of the "maintenance" jobs - deadheading, repotting and so on. After I've been out on the balcony about half an hour, I'm suddenly relaxed, destressed and yet concentrated to an extent that doesn't happen much at other times.

9. In winter, looking back through my photos at flowers from previous years and seeing ones I'd forgotten about - like the one in the photo above

Wow - that's nine and it was only supposed to be eight. When I started writing I'd only come up with three, and thought I'd probably be giving up before the end. But now the part I don't like which is having to tag other people. Perhaps we should all put a section in our sidebar saying I love (or hate) being tagged. So I'm not going to - instead, if as you've been reading through this you've thought Yes, me too, then consider yourself tagged. You can start with the common feature and then add seven more - we'll turn it into a chain meme. If you decide to, leave me a comment and I'll come and find out what we have in common.

And now I'm heading over to
May Dreams Gardens. Carol posted on this theme several days ago, but I've purposely been putting off reading the post so that I wouldn't be influenced by her ideas when I finally got round to writing this. We shall see if there's anything we share...

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Monster from the deep...

Every year, for the first ten days or so of December there's a huge craft fair in Milan, with exhibitors from all over the world. And I mean huge - it already fills nine exhibition halls and this year they had to turn down so many applications that next year it's moving to the new Trade Fair Centre that's recently been built on the outskirts of the city. It's a great place for Christmas presents, and if you ever need to come to Milan, it's worth trying to coincide. But apart from the general fun of shopping, I go there every year for one stand - a Dutch bulb stand.

Yes, I know it might seem a bit late for bulbs, with half the blogs you click on reporting snow by now. But here, though were not exactly in T-shirts, the really cold weather hasn't usually hit by December, and I can get away with it as long as I get everything in immediately - as my daffodils from last year show. This year I got some dwarf tulips, alium and fritillaria imperialis. And the monster in the top photo.

In case you don't recognise it, it's Eremurus or foxtail lily. When I saw it I had no idea what it was but couldn't resist asking about it. And once I did, I was hooked. Tall pink flower spikes from April to August, loves sun but needs cold winters. Should be just right for the balcony. Apparently though it doesn't like being moved, so I shall have to decide on a permanent container from the beginning - and then just try and plant other things around it. I seem to have a mental block on the name though, and keep having to go and look it up. So as far as I'm concerned, from now on it's just the Octopus Plant.

As for the others, I've never been particularly keen on tulips and this is really the first time I've tried. With limited space available, some things have to go - and I usually prefer daffodils. But my son talked me into these, and I must admit I was quite attracted. The fritillaria I've been wanting for a while, and the allium I tried a couple of years ago but managed to drown. Note to myself, water sparingly this time.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

You've been googled ...

A couple of weeks ago, Robin of A Bumble Bee Garden suggested that people post about the weird and wonderful queries that people enter into Google to end up on their blogs. I've had a look at mine and most of them are a bit predictable - balcony garden or balcony gardening obviously tops the list, with balkony plants as a variation. On Google that would have merited a snooty Do you mean ...? but in fact it came from Yahoo! who have obviously just given up on expecting the world to spell correctly and simply sigh resignedly as they tell you We have included balcony plants results ...

Some of the queries did link straight to posts I could identify. A lot of people seem to be searching for the book
Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night-Time at the moment, which I wrote about last January. (A super book - put it on your wish list for Christmas if you've not already read it.) I was also pleased to be able to help the person who googled What would bury a chicken egg in my garden? I know that one - it's a fox.

Not surprisingly, given the time of year, a lot of people are currently searching for Christmas Quiz, and ending up at
the quiz I did last year. I was slightly puzzled by the person who wanted a Christmas Quiz for Older People. Since then I've been racking my brains to try and think of suitable Christmas questions for the over fifties. What's the worst weather for Father Christmas' arthritis? perhaps. Rain, dear. ... And talking of Christmas Quizzes, I've decided that the Balcony Garden Christmas Quiz should become a tradition, so watch this space. But don't think you're going to get away with the easy-peasey questions we had last year. I've got some goodies up my sleeve for this one ...

Back to the search engines. Without doubt the best query of all was from someone who wanted Sex in the beatiful grden (sic). Whaat? if you tried having sex on my balcony you'd find yourself performing to an audience of the three hundred or so people who live in the block directly opposite. I puzzled about this one for a bit - but yes, I then realised I had written about sex. I wonder if the person who googled was really interested in
the mating habits of the leopard slug ...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Weird weather we've been having...

As I said in my last post, marigolds blooming in December is a sure sign that the weather must be mild, though it's hard to be sure as I can't find a complete list of temperatures for this month so that I can compare them with official averages. It's not been all warm weather though - there was one day when it plunged about ten degrees overnight - just the sort of drop that plants don't like. And we also had three days of torrential rain - not unusual for Milan in November. It never drizzles here. We go for months without a drop, and then when it does come it just pours and pours, so that roads flood, cellars flood and occasionally so does the underground, causing chaos everywhere.

But the strangest event this month was towards the middle of the month when the foehn suddenly hit. The foehn is a warm wind that comes across the mountains - warm because as the air drops down the side of the mountain, the increasing atmospheric pressure heats it up. It produces gusts of wind than can get quite strong. this time it got up to around 90km per hour in some places, and was about 80 when it hit Milan.

It had been fine when I went to work in the morning - but when I came out at lunchtime I had to fight my way through it to get home to my son, who was home from school sick that day. The wind had blown away all the smog, so there was a bright blue sky, warm sunshine and in the background you could see the Alps - something which only happens when it's windy enough to clear the pollution. The strongest of the winds happened just after I got home. The trees in the garden had just reached the peak of their autumn colours, so of course the leaves were ready to come off, and there was what would have been a wonderful photo of trees bent double and the air full of a stream of leaves blowing from left to right across the garden. Needless to say, the batteries in my camera were dead.

When I next went out on the balcony it was ankle deep in leaves, and I'm still finding them tucked behind the occasional pot.

Will the warm weather go on? The forecasts say no and that we're not going to have a mild winter again like last year. We'll see. The temperature has dropped, but it was still nine degrees out there this morning. If we do get normal temperatures, I should need to cover everything with fleece in about ten days. last year I didn't really need to at all, and although I did cover things as a precaution while I was away for Christmas, the fleece came off pretty soon afterwards. This year who knows. We shall see.
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