Sunday, December 21, 2008

So You Think You Know Your Christmas Plants - The 2008 Christmas Quiz

Three days to go, and just like every year I´ve still got everything to do for Christmas. So before I get too tied up with making the mince pies and wrapping the parcels, here´s this year´s Christmas quiz. You´ll find the answer at the bottom - no cheating please or Father Christmas won´t come ...

1. Two of the gifts brought by the wise men were Frankincense and myrrh, which come from trees of the genera Boswellia and Commiphora respectively. But what are they exactly?

a) a resin which oozes from the bark
b) an oilpaste made by pressing the berry-like fruits
c) a tincture made by soaking the leaves in alcohol

2. Ivy was traditionally hung over the entrance to the house at Christmas time because it was thought it would...

a) bring good luck in the coming year
b) frighten away goblins
c) protect from the plague

3. Something else you may have in the house this Christmas is Euphorbia pulcherrima. What is it?

a) mistletoe
b) holly
c) poinsettia

4. The most well-known Christmas tree in Britain is the one which goes up in Trafalgar Square in London each year. It´s a gift from the people of another European capital. Which one?

a) Oslo (Norway)
b) Stockholm (Sweden)
c) Helsinki (Finland)

5. How do you get your Christmas Cactus to bloom at Christmas?

a) Keep it in low humidity and stop watering around about the beginning of November.
b) Make sure it has 13 or more hours of continuous darkness per day starting around the beginning of October with temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
c) Keep it on a windowsill and turn it three times a day to ensure it receives light on all sides.

6. Christmas pudding was traditionally called plum pudding. But why, when there are no plums in it?

a) In the 16th century plum was a generic term which referred to any type of dried fruit - including raisins, which are a basic ingredient of the dish.
b) In the 17th century, plum was used as an adjective meaning delicious.
c) In the 13th century it was actually called plumb pudding. Plumb comes from the Latin word for lead, and it was a reference to how your stomach felt after eating it...

To see how you did just scroll down. And if you weren´t around in 2007 or 2006 and want to check out the quizzes for those years too, just click on the links.

OK here are the answers : 1.a; 2.b; 3.c; 4.a; 5.b ; 6.a

What ? 6/6 ? You´re too good for me. I can see I´m going to have to make them more difficult next year.

But till then, have a lovely Christmas - and don´t bother looking for the plums in your plum pudding ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gardeners' Bloom Day : Antirrhinums

It's Gardeners' Bloom Day again, and what have I got on the balcony? Bloomin' antirrhinums. Well, what else were you expecting in December?

I've written before about how, though usually considered as annuals, antirrhinums are actually perennials and will put up with a lot. This plant is about four years old by now, and has been snowed on regularly. The microclimate on the balcony protects it from long periods below freezing, but they're tougher than the gardening books sometimes make out. They're usually classed as "half-hardy", but in my experience it's nearer three-quarters.

What I didn't mention before though was the fact not only will it survive the winter, but you'll also get flowers. It's a bit like with winter flowering pansies - although their "real" flowering period is the spring, they'll also put out a few blooms around Christmas. Well, mine do anyway. Last year I thought it was just a freak occurrence, but now it's happening again with the same plant. It's got four or five flower spikes in bud at the moment.

OK, it's nothing compared to May. But at this time of year I reckon you have to be grateful for what you can get. So thank you little plant, and may you bloom on happily all through the cold months to come.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Well, the north wind did blow, and then we had snow ..

And when the north wind blows, we know about it. It sweeps down from Siberia, picks up the cold air of the Alps and then blasts down on us, usually bringing snow.

So we woke up on Wednesday morning to this, the second time this year.

It didn't last long - by mid morning it had turned to rain, and then it just teemed down for the rest of the week. A nuisance, but we escaped the problems that other areas have had. In the mountains people have been blocked in ski resorts because roads have been closed for fear of avalanches. Just outside Rome, 75,000 acres of farmland has been flooded while in the city
the Tiber was at record levels and very close to bursting its banks - click on the link for a photo.

It's not unknown for the Tiber to flood - one article I read estimates that it happens every 50-100 years. But it's ironic that it happened just as EU leaders were meeting in Brussels to discuss measures aimed at reducing climate change.

Was it a success? It depends who you read. Yes, in the sense that it retained the threatened 20/20/20 policy : countries still agree to a target of cutting CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020, to reaching 20% use of renewable energy, and to a 20% improvement in energy efficiency. No, because of the concessions made to some of the countries with the biggest pollution problems.

With the economic crisis biting hard, industry is clearly lobbying harder than ever to protect itself against any measures which are going to cost it money. Under the original plan, all power plants were going to have to start buying "carbon allowances" from 2013, thus encouraging energy saving and a turn to cleaner sources. But for many plants this has now been reduced to paying for only 30% of their allowances at the beginning, the 100% target not being reached until 2020.

This mostly affects the poorer countries from the ex-"eastern bloc", many of which are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Yet these are exactly the countries which are the worst polluters.

It wasn't only the poorer countries though. Germany pushed for and obtained concessions, while Italy was at one point threatening to use its veto and block the whole process, objecting to the idea that it should be "only" Europe which was acting, while new economies like China and India continued undermining any effects that the European initiatives might have. Yet if the EU can't even get its own countries to agree to change, it's not clear why they expect others should happily climb on board.

So we have the same targets as before - but much weaker mechanisms for achieving them. That seems like a contradiction in terms to me, rather than the great victory that the Italians were proclaiming. The only attempt I've found at explaining how it might still happen was the
BBC's cheery little comment that "CO2 emissions are likely to fall anyway if a prolonged recession brings significant plant closures". Erm ...

At the same time as the EU summit, there was a two-week a UN conference in Poznan in Poland - ironically, one of Europe's worst polluters. At first it seemed more positive. Al Gore was confident that the Obama government will have a far more active policy on preventing climate change than did the Bush government. Well, it certainly won't be less active, but apparently he's not going to think about it until at least the summer. Now, this certainly isn't something to be decided overnight - it's too important. but if you've known for a while that you might end up as president of the US, isn't it something that's important enough that you would already have thought about it? Especially when you know your predeccessor has already been dragging his feet for so long. Gore also pointed to the fact that some of the developing countries - like Brazil, Mexica and China - were coming on board, with pledges on restraining the rise in greenhouse gas emissions already in place.

But what has come out of both meetings is that the developing countries need money - money which the richer nations could provide but are often reluctant to do so. Some progress has been made - for example, Britain is providing £100m to help countries such as Indonesia reduce deforestation (see this article in The Independent). In addition, some funds have been provided to compensate poorer countries which have recently suffered from extreme weather conditions, such as flooding, for the impacts of climate change. But it's not enough - currently no more than $80m. And anyway, it's a different issue. It doesn't solve the problem.

Poznan is the half way stage in a two year process which will end with a conference in Copenhagen next year, and which is intended to be the "next Kyoto". Whether Poznan has been a positive step in this direction depends, again, on who you read. Hopefully, by then the States, unlike in Kyoto, will "on board". But will they be any more willing to go against the business lobby than Europe has been? And without strong commitment from the US and the EU, will the developing countries be interested?

Meanwhile, back to the weather. We had a short truce this morning. The torrential rain finally stopped - thank goodness as my son had a football match (US readers read "soccer") and would have been soaked as well as freezing to death. One is enough. But the forecast is for more heavy rain and snow, starting in the north and spreading south. I think we might just be heading for a white Christmas ...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bare Balcony, Bad Back

I finally got back out on the balcony last Sunday, spurred on by weather forecasts that promised snow. Snow. In Milan. In November. Were they joking? As the temperature on the balcony was 18°C at the time, and I really didn't need the thick sweater I'd put on, it seemed unlikely. But it was a good excuse to get on with all the clearing up I'd been putting off for weeks, and to move the stuff that had to overwinter close to the walls of the house, where it would stay warmer.

So I pottered around for a few hours, by the end of which the balcony was starting to look remotely as if it was cared for again, if somewhat bare. My motivation crisis has meant few biennials this year. And some of what I did put in didn't come up - my pansies, hollyhocks and foxgloves were a total failure. Out of the lot, I got one pansy plant. The only success has been a little container full of wallflowers, which are coming on fine.

I was relieved to see that my ill-treated cyclamen had picked up again though. I moved them from individual pots into a single container, and they seem very happy there. All three plants are full of little buds just starting to come through.

And then I came in, and went back to work.

So there I am sitting at my computer half an hour later, when I decide I'd like a cup of tea. I go to get up - and can't. My back's just seized up completely - a classic case of what Italians call il colpo della strega - the witch's blow.

How had I done it? I was fine when I sat down, and it wasn't until I tried to get up again that I even realised that it hurt. I can only imagine that I made the usual mistake of lifting things badly as I was shifting the containers around - something have no excuse for because I know how you should do it, I know I have back problems, and I know I shouldn't risk it.

Two days and a lot of ibuprofen later, I was more or less back on my feet. But for any of you who don't know the "rules", here's a summary from the
Family Doctor site. When you have to lift something ....

  • Don't lift by bending over - OK, guess who put the containers on the balcony floor then bent straight over to pick them up again. Guilty.

  • Lift an object by bending your knees and squatting to pick up the object - Yeah, but my knees are in an even worse state than my back. Squat to pick up ? If I squat someone has to pick me up .... Guilty but I plead mitigating circumstances.

  • Keep your back straight and hold the object close to your body - And squash all the plants to death? Objection, your Honour.

  • Avoid twisting your body while lifting - OK, OK I twisted. But if you saw the size of my balcony ... What else was I supposed to do ? I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

But my protestations were to little avail and I was sentenced to two days flat on my back. I did consider an appeal based on the ruling I found on the Wellness site suggesting that following the the rules doesn't work at all, but I have to say the prison conditions were fairly comfy, and the time passed relatively pleasantly. The warder was very kind, and kept me supplied with plenty of reading matter and copious cups of tea. He was so kind in fact that I think the next time I have to shift containers, I might just ask for his help. Now there's a foolproof way to prevent back injury while lifting ...

Sorry ? Oh the snow. Well yes, it did arrive. There was a sprinkling that night, but it was more or less gone by the morning. And then on Friday it came back and snowed for five or six hours - just enough to send Milan into total chaos and cause havoc with the public transport system.

You know, I can hear you laughing all the way from Alaska ...

Friday, November 28, 2008

I've had an E-mail from Christopher Lloyd ...

So there I am, sat at the computer, and I decide to check my E-mail. A few messages from students, the usual collection of spam and phishing mails, and a message from Chris Lloyd. Chris Lloyd? Do I know anyone named Chris Lloyd? I trawl back through my memory but no-one springs to mind. Uh oh - is this more spam? I approach with caution .... and find a very chatty E-mail publicising a new book by Christopher Lloyd.

A book? Christopher Lloyd? Could it be ....? Now I'm not so daft as to start clicking on E-mail links unless I'm 100% sure where they've come from, so I copy the name of the book, toddle over to Amazon and paste it in. And sure enough ....

But wait a moment. Christopher Lloyd is dead - and anyway, this isn't a gardening book. Are we perhaps talking about the actor Christopher Lloyd - you know, the mad scientist from Back to the Future? Back to Google. But no. Cold trail there. Try googling the title. And ... bingo.

This Christopher Lloyd is a journalist and writer. But how did the E-mail get to me? I've never heard of the guy, and if he's stooping to Spam, then I'm not interested, however good the book is. But there's an end message with his address, the web address of the mail company who sent the message, and the usual message saying that I've received the mail because I've signed up for the service and can unsubscribe at any time. I have? I really can't remember when. Or where. So I check out the company on Google, and they seem bona fide - lots of assurances of their privacy policy etc. And I have to say it's the first time I've heard from them, and the product seems very clearly targeted. Sad though that we're all so harassed by spam that we're super suspicious even of publicity that turns out to be something we're happy to receive.

So Chris, (please excuse the familiarity, but that is how you signed yourself) I thought I'd make up for my nasty suspicions by giving you a plug. The E-mail does say to pass the message on, so this is how I'm doing it. The book looks fun, and if anyone would like it signed personally there was this offer in the message...

As a thank you, I am offering to write and send one (or more) personalised bookplate(s) free of charge to stick on the inside front cover of the book if it is to be a Christmas gift ...

You can get it by going to Chris' website, here . I noticed that the book is Amazon's 500th best seller though, so you may have to wait while he recovers from writer's cramp. Amazing what a mail shot can do.

So there you go. If, as the message says, you're looking for a Christmas gift for your 16-year old son / daughter, 45 year old mother/ father or 76 year old grandparents, this could just be it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I'm all blogged out... This is the first post for a month, when I've been averaging two a week all year. I just suddenly didn't have anything to say, and no motivation to even think about it.

I'm suffering from a bad attack of the blogging blues. They don't appear out of nowhere of course. They creep up on you insidiously over a period of time. In my case they were triggered by the recent problems at Blotanical (triggered you understand, not caused.) My already somewhat pathetic stats plunged, and I missed a goal I'd set myself by a mile. And at a certain point it didn't seem worth it any more ...

I ploughed on. But I wasn't just blogged out, I was balconied out too. Since the beginning of the autumn I've barely set foot out there. Whole containers got attacked by downy mildew and I just sat and watched. Plants wilted from lack of water and I just thought I'll do it tomorrow. Temperatures plunged and I just left plants out and uncovered. Whaat ??! This isn't like me. These are my babies ...

But if I wasn't working on the balcony, then there was nothing to write about it. My posts were getting more and more general. Where was the blog going? What was I trying to achieve?

The underlying cause was probably a nasty dose of overwork - when you're already spending twelve hours a day writing at the computer, and still missing deadlines, an hour spent blogging neither seems justified nor particularly appealing.

But it doesn't seem to be going away, so where do I go from here? I've been seriously thinking of closing down the blog all together. And I see I'm not the only one. Several blogs I follow have closed, or at least changed direction recently. Does there come a time when you've just been there, done that and it's time to move on? I've been blogging for over two years now,and the blogosphere has changed radically in that period. At the beginning it was cosy. Now it sometimes feels like a jungle ...

In the last couple of days one or two nice things have happened which have made me rethink. Should I try changing direction too? Go for more of a how-to approach and monetarise the blog? Broaden out and add a second topic? Redo the template and the layout ? Would that give me the impetus to start up again?

To those of you who do follow the Balcony Garden, whether regularly or occasionally, thank you. Without your comments I'd have stopped long ago. And I'd love some advice. Have you ever had the blogging blues? How did you get through it? What would you do with the Balcony Garden if you were me? How could I improve it, and make it more fun - both for me and for you ?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Virginia Creeper

Autumn has now definitely arrived, although temperatures are still very high for the time of year and you can still go out without a coat. But the trees are starting to change colour, and the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is glorious at the moment.

I love Virginia Creeper. My grandparents used it in their garden to hide the area where they kept the dustbin, and here in Milan it's very common on balconies. People grow it up wires and trellises at the front of the balcony, to shield the house from both the summer sun and the eyes of the neighbours in the buiding opposite. I don't have any, because it would take too much space away from the other things, but I enjoy watching my neighbours' vines turning to brilliant vermilion every winter. Our caretaker, who has to sweep the fallen leaves off the path every morning, may well have a different opinion.

On a balcony it's relatively easy to keep under control, but in a garden it can run riot if you don't cut it back. It can grow to 50 feet, and once established is almost impossible to get rid of, as it spreads from rhizomes. It's quite happy anywhere in zones 3-10 too, so don't bother hoping the weather will do the job for you. If you plant it, you've got to be willing to love it.

On the canal which runs close to us, it's started growing wild. The local authorities always used to keep the canal banks tidied, but in the past few years they've been left to their own devices. And nature has just taken over. The Robinias are leaning drunkenly into the water, with Virginia Creeper wound insidiously around trunks and branches, then drooping downwards so that it almost obscures the tree completely.

Will it eventually kill off the trees if it's not kept under control? The web seems divided, with some sources saying that it will deprive the trees of light and kill them that way, and others saying no, they'll co-exist quite happily.

While I was browsing though, and trying to find out, I came across this bit of information on the meaning of the name at :

Parthenocissus is a backward translation (and a rather lame one, frankly) from the English, with a healthy dose of poetic license. Partheno- means "virgin" (as in "Virginia") and cissus translates as "ivy."

If you weren't already convinced that Latin names are crazy, that should just about do it I reckon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Heaths and Heathers

Heaths and heathers - can you tell them apart? I'm not sure. I've pored over the descriptions and photos in my gardening books and on the net, and I'm still not sure what I've got on the balcony at the moment. They were sold as Erica - that is heath - though the variety wasn't specified. But Erica is supposed to have needle-like leaves, and mine are different - to me they look like the leaves of Calluna vulgaris - the Scottish heather or ling. Some species and varieties of Erica don't flower at this time of year, but others do - so that doesn't help.

Does it make much difference? Not really. Calluna is hardier than Erica, but that's not a problem on the balcony, where I can easily protect against the few really cold spells we have. We're in zone 8, and while it can drop well below freezing outside, the warmth from the house means the balcony is far less at risk. I'm more worried about summer heat, and as many species of Erica are limited to southern Europe and Africa, thought it might be a better bet. But no, Calluna vulgaris is supposed to like full sun and be heat tolerant - suitable for US heat zones 4-7. I'm not sure what our heat zone is, but I suspect it's somewhere in that range. Heat zones are based on the number of days per year the temperature rises above 30°C/86F, and for us that means any time mid-June to early September, with the middle six weeks rarely far below. I have to say though that it surprised me. I wouldn't have thought that a plant which chose to grow so abundantly on the Scottish moors would be a sun-lover.

But apart from hardiness, they both seem to like identical treatment : acid soil, no fertiliser, and constant moisture but good drainage. So from that point of view it doesn't really matter that I'm not sure what I've got.

In any case, they're my choice for this month's Gardeners' Bloom Day post. Yes, I know - late again. I didn't really have much choice this month. It's been a busy period for work and most of the stuff on the balcony is currently dead or dying - I kid myself it's due to the change of the season, but several plants have been looking at me accusingly and muttering under their leaves about neglect and cruelty. I'm sorry - I will get back out to you sooner or later, I promise ...

Monday, October 06, 2008

Tulips from Amsterdam.

Well, daffodils actually. But they could have been tulips.

We had to go to my son's school last week for a start of year meeting, and as we were waiting for the bus on the way back, I noticed that the little Piazza in front of us was covered with crates and crates of bulbs.

Bulbs. (Fall-rise intonation, as in Yes, that's what I said). We don't get bulbs in Milan - or at least, only very rarely, sold in ones or twos, and at exorbitant prices.

Milanese bus stops have this neat litle device which tell you how far away the next bus is, and this one said five minutes. So I left my husband and my son at the stop and popped across the road for a look. Just a look you understand.

But when I saw the prices ... In Italian terms, they were giving them away. And I had almost no money with me.

I looked around for the guy who was selling, and heard him talking to another customer. He was speaking in English - with a decidedly Dutch accent. Aah. (Fall-rise again, this time as in So I'm buying direct from the producer. That explains the prices.) I asked him how often he was there, with a view to coming back with some cash. Once a year, was the reply.

Ah. (Falling tone this time as in This could be a problem.) But though I didn't have much money with me, I did have a husband. So back I go and say that they could get the bus and go home, but I was going shopping - oh, and could I have some money?

An audible sigh was heard and eyes went up towards heaven. But a wallet was pulled out and I was handed a blue banknote. I'd been hoping for a brown one, you understand, but he knows me. He knows me.

Back I skip. Almost all the bulbs are tulips, of all the varieties under the sun. It's tempting, but I "did" tulips this year, and space on the balcony is limited. So I go for daffs instead.

There are also racks of plants. I avoid the cyclamen, which I've got already, and pick up six heathers, a veronica and some asters. All so cheap that I'm not even counting. But that's about all I can carry, and I must surely have spent all the money I've got by now. How much? €12,45 - but call it €12. Whaat? (rise-fall intonation as in This guy's giving them away and he's still giving me a discount?)

So at that point I decide that I might just stretch to some more bulbs. Let's round it up to €15 and call it a day ...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Just watch ....

Go watch this on Youtube : Planet Earth

Trust me.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I forgot...

Browsing through some blogs yesterday, I came across some Gardeners' Bloom Day posts. Eeek ... is it the 15th already? This month I completely forgot about it for the first time ever - and I've been posting for GBD since it started. I've been late before, because of lack of time, but I've never just forgotten. Old age creeps insidiously closer...

But perhaps one of the reasons I didn't think about it is because when I asked myself what was in bloom on the balcony this month, the answer was ... nothing much. Or at least, nothing that I haven't already blogged about in the past couple of months. The four o'clocks are still going strong, as are the impatiens and periwinkles. The purple surfinia have had it and the yellow surfinia and purple sage are past their best. I'd probably have more to show if I'd had more time, but it's been a busy month, and the balcony has been a bit neglected.

But as I walked past
my local garden centre the other day, I saw these. Impatiens New Guinea, growing in a large container together with a small Maple tree. By chance I had my camera with me, and couldn't resist ...

So for this GBD I'm showing you what my balcony could be looking like at the moment if I'd taken as much care of it this summer as the people at the garden centre obviously have with these. I'm not very good with Impatiens New Guinea. They're sun lovers, but need copious amounts of water. And if they're neglected, they succumb very quickly to red spider mite. Each year I try again - I had some lovely pink ones back in the early summer - but sooner or later I lose them.

A pity, because by the time they've grown to this size, they're glorious. Ah well, perhaps next year will be different ...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Composting on the balcony?

Can you compost on a balcony? I've always wanted to. In my garden in London there's a compost heap, and when we're there kitchen waste, as well as plant waste from the garden, is rigorously recycled. But on a balcony?

Some websites, like this one from the
City of Toronto, say yes. But I've always had my doubts. Is there enough room? Wouldn't the smell be too bad? Even if I could cope with a compost heap outside my bedroom window, I'm far too scared of the neighbours to risk it. (And if you think that's wimpy, you've never met my neighbours).

I've thought of a wormery, but they'd roast in the summer. The temperature on the balcony can go up to 50°C in full sun. So every night there's nothing to do but throw away the vegetable peelings. The hamster does her best, but how much can a three inch long creature be expected to consume?

Then the other day, when browsing Amazon's Home and Garden section, I came across this kitchen waste composter. It seemed the answer. Small - the exact size isn't stated, but it's supposed to "fit under the sink" so fine for the balcony - and promises of "no smells". It went straight to the top of my Christmas wish list.

And then the downer. This product can only be delivered within the UK. Rats.

But I decided to browse a bit further and found that it's sold by a company called
Just Green - and they deliver anywhere.

How does it work? It uses a product called bokashi, a bran based mix containing micro-organisms which break down the waste, producing both compost and liquid fertiliser. And it's only supposed to take a few weeks.

It's not cheap. Apart from the initial outlay it will mean constantly buying the bokashi to keep it working. But gradually it should start to pay for itself, as I no longer have to buy either soil for the containers or fertilisers.

But it's the ecological advantages which are most important :

  • reduced waste to be transported and disposed of - so a saving in energy

  • no more agonising over the ecological soundness of packaged soil - which has already clocked up goodness knows how many transport miles, which - here at least - inevitably contains either peat or coir, and which comes in plastic bags which then have to be thrown away.

  • no more chemical fertilisers to contaminate the soil - which even if it is originally in containers eventually gets thrown away, so that any chemical contents leach into the ground.
So it's back on my Christmas list, as are several other things from the site, and we'll see if it works as well as it promises. Watch this space for updates.

Monday, September 08, 2008

An Interview with Carol of May Dreams Gardens

Most people reading this will already know May Dreams Gardens. It's a blog which I've read regularly for a couple of years now, and though I don't have time to visit and check out Carol's posts daily, I always try and catch up at the weekend. The posts are funny, down-to-earth and always interesting. So I was thrilled when Carol agreed to do an interview for The Balcony Garden on gardening and blogging.

You live in Indiana. For those of us not in the States, can you tell us a bit about it? Is it a good area for gardening?

Indiana is often called “the crossroads of America” because we are located in the Midwest part of the country, and there are several major highways that go through Indiana. I wrote a post back in February about why I like gardening in Indiana.

When did you start gardening? How quickly did it become a passion?

I’m on one of those gardeners who started at a very young age and can’t remember NOT gardening. It became a passion early on and is one of reasons I decided to major in Horticulture in college.

How is your garden organised?

My vegetable garden takes up about a third of my backyard, the rest is lawn and flower beds. The front is a typical suburban front yard like many found across the United States with a combination of trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Is there anything unusual in your garden which is particularly special for you?

The most unusual plant is probably my night blooming cereus which I inherited from my dad. I’m happy whenever it blooms.

Why did you start blogging? Where did the idea come from?

I read about blogs around 2003 or so and started one in 2004 because I like to write. But I probably posted ten times in those first two years. Then in early 2006, I started posting more often, and here I am!

You post more or less every day, as well as frequently leaving comments on other people’s blogs. And have other blogs too. How much of your time does blogging take up?

I’ll admit I do fall behind on leaving comments on other people’s blogs, and probably have a dozen or so that I comment on the most. But, when it comes to the Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day posts, I try to comment on anyone’s blog who has left a comment. My other blog, which is about my Grandmother’s diaries, doesn’t take any time at all and I usually set it up about a week ahead so it ‘auto posts’ through the week. The posts on my blog can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as 1 hour to write.

The thing I like best about your blog is that it’s so easy to relate to. Nearly always I find myself thinking “I could have written that – if I’d thought of that angle”. You somehow manage to give a creative twist to the most mundane, everyday gardening topics. How do you get all your ideas?

What a nice compliment! My ideas come from being a gardener myself, I guess. The more time I spend gardening, the more ideas I get. And when an idea comes to me, I’ll try to write down a few notes about it so I don’t forget.

You’ve also started some incredibly successful memes – Gardeners’ Bloom Day for instance, which continues to grow and grow. Why do you think it’s become so popular? Will it go on for ever?

I think Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is popular because it gives gardeners a good reason to show off their blooms and at the same time compare to what others have in bloom. I’ve learned so much about other climates that people garden in, and who has what blooming through bloom day. Every month, there are a few garden bloggers who post for the first time, and others who drop out. And many gardeners have noted that after doing it for over a year they now have a journal of sorts of their own garden and can compare this year to last year, which they couldn’t really do before. I’m going to keep doing it and I hope others continue as well.

You’ve been blogging for a relatively long time. How has your blog changed in that time? Where do you see it going in the future?

I hope my writing has improved over time! I’ve recently branched out to writing for as the Indianapolis Gardening Examiner, and have been thinking about other venues for garden writing.

Has blogging and the blogosphere changed since you started? How?

Yes, it has changed. There are more blogs, many good blogs. And many bloggers now use sites like Twitter which helps to further create an online community amongst gardeners, and provides a place to provide little updates on first blooms, vegetable harvests, what we are doing in our gardens, etc.

If like me you gardened on a balcony and had limited space, what would you grow?

I think I would grow trough type gardens with miniature plants. I have one garden space devoted to miniature plants mostly hostas and other shade loving plants. I can spend just a few minutes weeding and deadheading in it and then step back and think, “Well, that’s one flower bed done!”.

What was your most important gardening moment?

There are several. I think it is important to plant trees; they will shape the garden for decades to come and help the environment. Another important moment is committing to organic methods only.

What was your most important blogging moment?

The most important moment was probably not on my blog, but because of my blog, connecting with other gardeners and flying to Austin, Texas for what was hopefully the FIRST garden bloggers spring fling. Probably the most touching moment was when Annie in Austin wrote a song about my garden. . But every day, I’m touched by the comments other gardeners leave on my blog and the connections I make through my blog with other gardeners.

Carol, a big thank you. If you're new to garden blogging and have never come across May Dreams Gardens, check it out now. I promise you won't be disappointed!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Form and Colour, Colour and Form

Whoops - how to lose friends and alienate people. I didn't mean to, honest, but some of you obviously thought that my last post was intended as a rant. It really wasn't and I've tried to explain why in the comments, but I'm sorry if I offended anyone. For the record, I have absolutely nothing against the people who created those balconies or against anyone who has the same attitude to balcony gardening. They're wonderful, and certainly contribute more to making the community attractive than mine does.

But as an attempt to redeem myself, I thought I'd talk about how I do try and create visual impact with containers, while at the same time growing as wide a variety of plants as possible. All my containers are different, but within each container I try and achieve an effect either by combining different colours and/or different forms.

Here's an example from a couple of years back. Very simple - marigolds and yellow surfinias -but it worked wonderfully. The stark browney-gold of the marigolds both contrasted with and complemented the lemony yellow of the surfinias, as did the different forms of both the flowers and the leaves. And they're both set off by the little white daisies peeking out from behind.

This year my most successful container had flowers of one colour only - but with completely different forms : surfinia again and sage (though I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten which one). The photo doesn't really do it justice - the purple spikes of the sage towered above the trailing surfinia, and it looked superb, both from below the balcony and from behind.

I love purple and have a lot of it on my balcony. In this photo from last year, purple and white surfinia mix with pink antirrhinums and blue plumbago (all grown from seed except the plumbago) - again creating harmony and contrast of colour and form.

Purple is one of the few colours I really like using together with pink - especially dark pink. This photo was taken early after planting - imagine them when they'd grown and filled out the spaces.

So my balcony's a hotch potch. I also admit that I usually plant thinking of the view from inside rather than below. And these photos range over three years and were, admittedly, taken when things were looking good. They hide the tatty failures. But I still think they stand up to the ones in the last post, stupendous as they were. And I promise you they're more fun to grow.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Balcony gardening ... or just exterior decorating?

What makes for a good balcony garden? Is it the variety of plants? How healthy they are? The visual impact?

Probably the answer is all of these. But it's difficult sometimes to score highly in all three categories at once. Playing safe and only choosing plants which you know will do well often means a balcony with just the old favourites - pelargoniums, surfinia and, here at least, plumbago. Creating visual impact often means restricting the plants to just one or two colours. Going for variety can mean that half your plants are experiments that don't work and end up looking tatty.

I'll cheerfully admit that my balcony definitely comes into the "variety at the expense of looking tatty" category, especially at the moment. It's the end of the season and even the plants which did well are looking as if they've had too much sun, fought off the pests for too long, and put out more blooms than they've got strength for. Those tell tale brown stems are starting to appear, and dead-heading no longer produces the same amount of flowers as it did a couple of months ago. And most of the experiments have just given up and died. Work on the balcony now consists chiefly of tidying up and pulling things out.

But while I was on holiday I came across some balconies whose owners had clearly gone for a different approach - visual impact at all costs. And some of them were stupendous, despite being incredibly simple and confining themselve to the old favourites. I loved the mass of pink ivy-leaved geraniums growing on the balcony in the top picture, and the strong colours of the ever-present surfinia too. And the salmon coloured zonal pelargoniums reminded me that my own, though they've been wonderful for several years, are now past their best. It's time to take cuttings and start again.

These begonias weren't quite so interesting, but better than the photo shows - as ever it's the problem of photographing red.

But my favourite was a balcony with no flowers at all - just leaves. A whole set of containers full of coleus, in an amazing variety shades and patterns. I've been meaning to grow some coleus for ages but not got around to it. Next year I certainly will.

For me these single-colour, single plant balconies aren't what gardening is all about. It's just exterior decorating - though I admit that the condition of the plants on these balconies showed that their owners certainly knew how to keep them healthy. But it's a get-plants-from-the-garden-centre-and-throw-them-away-at-the-end-of-the-season approach which would, as far as I'm concerned, take all the fun out of it.

So my balcony will probably never smack you in the eyes like these did. A pity, because I enjoy the visual impact of plants too. But it would mean giving up too much. I'll stick with looking tatty.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Trumpet Vine

I've always liked the look of the Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans), also known as Bignonia. I know it can be invasive and can smother everything it gets its tendrils into - the photo below is of one growing up what once was a tree in the pine forest at Eraclea Mare, where we spent our holidays. It doesn't show up very well on the photo, but you can take my word for it that all you can see there is trumpet vine.

But on a balcony it's much easier to keep things under control. The plants are in containers so the roots can't spread, and the seeds mostly fall on the balcony floor - no real problems with self-seeding. I had been thinking that the plant would look great growing up the trellis at the far end for quite a while, so when I saw the one in the top photo growing at the side of the road, I wondered whether maybe a couple of the temptingly dangling seed pods could make their way into my pockets.

When I got closer though, I backed off - quick. Never have I seen so many wasps on a plant. There were hundreds of them, as well as a good collection of different type of bees. I'd heard that the plant attracted large numbers of insects, but hadn't quite imagined the scale of it.

I've noticed a number of posts on various blogs recently trying to convince us that "wasps are our friends" because they eat aphids, lay their eggs in caterpillars so that the larvae eat them from the inside out, etc.

Lay their eggs in caterpillars so that the larvae eat them from the inside out? Yuk - not what I want to see happening on my balcony every time I look at a plant. I may be obsessed with not killing things, but I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. Nor do I fancy having to shoo them out of the house every five minutes. We already get our fair share of huge ones, which I think are part of the sceliphron species (mud dauber wasps). My son calls them "the wasp with the trailer" because of the ridiculously long petiole which joins the two parts of their body. What evolutionary purpose that serves is beyond me. For once I tried to attract them today so I could take a photo, but despite leaving out fruit and jam there's been no sign. huh - I bet if I sat on the balcony to eat a peach ...

So I found this photo made available under Creative Commons license by Nigel Jones (thanks Nigel). It's not the same type - ours has a bright yellow body with black stripes and a straight black brittle-looking petiole. And they're much meaner looking. But you get the general idea.

So my trumpet vine plans have sadly been shelved. From now on I'll go on enjoying other people's but will leave having my own until the day I get a very large garden. And it will be going right down the bottom.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ten reasons why I wouldn't be without my scissors

What tools are absolutely essential for gardening on a balcony? Well really, none. But I wouldn't want to be without my scissors.

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


If you've commented on any of the last few posts and have been wondering why the comments hadn't been published - I've been on holiday. The posts were prepared in advance and went up automatically on the scheduled dates, but I've had no computer access for a couple of weeks so couldn't check for comments. They're all up now though.

We were at 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.

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.

The pines were Umbrella Pines (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.

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.

The only animal I saw was a red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) who was also a bit camera shy. I noticed him in roughly the same place on several occasions, but again, when I went out with my camera he refused to co-operate.

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

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