Tuesday, February 26, 2008

When gardening seems like housework...

It seems that spring is here. We've had temperatures around 12-15° centigrade, and despite a sudden dip when it dropped to 1° overnight, killing off the surfinia I'd nursed all through the winter months but had recently uncovered, things are starting to grow again. The pansies have doubled in size, the biennials and perennials are putting out new foliage...

and the sedum is covered in flower shoots.

The bulbs I planted last year are also all well on their way. Look - who's this poking his head through? It's the Monster from the Deep.

Unfortunately though, spring also means spring cleaning. Balconies get mucky - especially in a horrendously polluted city like Milan - and believe me, cleaning a balcony is no more fun than cleaning the kitchen. But now's the best time to do it really thoroughly, before all the containers go back in place, get filled with plants and become difficult to move.

So last weekend saw me out there with my bucket of Ajax, washing down the railings and all the shelving that the containers sit on. And next weekend is the turn of the containers themselves, which need emptying, washing out and disinfecting - important to stop the spread of any diseases from last year to this year's plants.

Then I need to wash the plants. Yes, them too. As rain only comes onto the balcony in a really severe storm, they get just as dirty as the balcony itself. And it's a job I hate. I am not a patient, precise person, and standing for hours gently cleaning one leaf at a time is not my idea of the fun side of gardening.

That done though, there's only one job left - I'll have to get rid of the old soil. Luckily I only have to carry it all downstairs, as it can go in the garden underneath the balcony. Last year quite a lot of seeds seemed to have got themselves mixed up in it. Funny that.

And then, with all the clearing up done, I can finally start again. Pass me the trowel someone.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

I've done it again ...

Last Saturday I went shopping because I needed a new pair of trousers. Not finding any I liked in the centre of town, I decided to visit a shopping centre on the outskirts of Milan which I'd never been to before. I didn't find any trousers, but I did find a garden centre ...

A while back, everyone was posting about seed catalogues and how they were choosing things for the year. I wish I was so organised. I'm an impulse buyer - I see things and can't resist. And then regret it.

Take some of the stuff I came home with this time. Pink lilies. Well, I've been thinking of getting some lilies for a while, but pink? I hate pink. Not as a colour - I wear pink all the time. But on the balcony it never seems to go with anything. Nasturtiums - great, I love them. But climbers, when all my trellises are already occupied? And this? Hemerocallis - looks great, but I know absolutely nothing about it. Are conditions right for it on the balcony or have I thrown my money away? And one bright orange Dahlia. Wherever am I going to put that? Then two packs of gladioli when I know my gladioli have failed miserably in the past. And all those seeds. I've got enough seeds to start a nursery already, and wasn't I going to cut down on flowers and grow vegetables this year instead? Not, of course, that I didn't buy vegetable seeds as well. Here's just a few of the collection so far ...

Moral of the story - yesterday I had to go back and buy yet more stuff in order to have some decent combinations, while I think some of the seeds are just going to have to wait till next year.

And next year I really, really won't buy anything new.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What Kind of Garden Blogger are you?

I've been getting intrigued by the way some garden blogs, which I consider to be really good, chuntle along for years with very little attention from the garden bloggers' community, while others zoom into popularity within a couple of months of start-up. What makes the difference? Is it content? Visual impact? Or what?

After spending a week avidly reading all sorts of blogs, I still don't know. Garden bloggers often seem to fall into categories, but the most popular blogs may come from any of them. However, the categories themselves are intriguing. So here they are - see which category you think you and your favourite blogs fall into. They're not mutually exclusive, so don't be surprised if some blogs fit into more than one category. Oh - one thing before we start. I've got favourite blogs from all the categories, and I know that a lot of blogs which I read less regularly are followed avidly by a lot of other people. So this isn't intended to be a criticism of anyone or anyparticular category. there are pros and cons to all of them. And in any case I am not, repeat not, talking about you.

1. The purists vs. the bifurcated vs. the butterflies.

The purists write about gardening, gardening and more gardening. You can read their blogs for months and you'll have hardly any idea about the rest of their lives. The odd mention of a family member may creep in, but that's about it. Do they have jobs? other interests? problems? You'll never know - unless it's gardening related of course. Their blogs are really interesting, and often give you loads of ideas, but can occasionally get a bit impersonal - is there a real person in there somewhere?

The bifurcated have two main interests and their blog reflects this. One subcategory of the bifurcated are the wildlife bloggers, who focus as much as the birds, insects and animals in the garden as on the flowers, while the other are the hobbyists. The garden is one hobby, but there's another - and it shares the blog. How you feel about bifurcated blogs much depends on whether you share the second interest. If you do, they're double value for money. If not you can sometimes get fed up.

The butterflies, on the other hand, will blog about anything interesting that happens to them or comes to mind - whether it's garden related or not. Their blogs are often fun and lively, and you soon start to feel you know the writer personally. You sometimes wish they'd get back to the garden though.

2. The informative vs. the chatty.

Most of us in the garden blogging community would cheerfully admit to being amateurs. But there are professional gardeners within our midst, and also an awful lot of amateur expertise. (Amateur doesn't necessarily mean "amateurish - Olympic athletes are amateurs too.) Some bloggers, especially professionals such as nursery owners focus on being informative - giving details of plants, growing techniques and so on. And they clearly know what they're talking about. They're at their best though when the blog isn't just there to publicise a business, but when they genuinely want to blog. And when they tell us about their experiments and failures as well as their successes.

Writers of chatty blogs don't consider themselves experts at all, and just want to talk about what's going on in their gardens. They'll ask for advice as often as give it, and their comments boxes are often the place where the real information comes out.

3. The writers vs. the scribblers

And then there are the professional writers, often journalists. They can come up with a topic which might never have occurred to the rest of us and write about it in a way that fascinates and intrigues - seemingly effortlessly, and without the wrestling matches that we scribblers have trying to make words work for us. Take notes of how they do it - their posts are frequently the best of the bunch, and I'm usually green with envy when I read them. But on the other hand, they can sometimes be too polished and impersonal - somehow the appeal of the blog format is that blogs are written by ordinary people who can't spell antirrhinum, and not by professionals.

4. The photographers vs. the illustrators

Very few garden blogs have no photos at all. Even when there isn't a relevant photo to go with what we're saying, we add one anyway - lijke the one at the top of this post. But most of us are illustrators. We just plan a few nice photos to go with our posts, and pop out and take them. We may even find ourselves apologising for the fact that they're out of focus or that the colour's a bit off. But some blogs have pictures which are just breathtaking - you can see every vein on a petal, or every grain of pollen on a bees back. I don't know how they do it. Yes, they probably have far superior equipment to my bottom of the range Canon. But I suspect that even if we swapped, they'd still produce the best photos. The downside of the photographers' blogs? Sometimes thay can go over the top on the photos without having very much to say. But then, the photos often speak for themselves ...

5. The decorators vs.the essentialists

If you use a blog provider like Blogger, you get offered a choice of standard blog formats. But for most of us that's not enough. We want to decorate our blogs and add fancy backgrounds, different colours, widgets galore in the sidebar ... It all helps turn the blog into a personal statement and serves to make it more attractive - as long as you share the same taste as the blogger. And decorators' blogs can sometimes be hell to load. The essentialists' blogs, on the other hand, load in a moment. But they can be a bit boring ...

6. The frequent vs. the occasional

How often do you blog? Some people blog every day (occasionally twice) while others may let a couple of weeks pass between posts. Is there an optimum frequency of posts? Personally, I don't think so. I'd rather read someone whose posts are occasional but who has something to say than someone to feels they "have to" post daily. But then, a lot of people are frequent posters and do have something to say.

7. The copious vs. the concise

How long are your posts? Some posts don't go over a couple of hundred words - which for me is usually too concise and leaves me hungering for more. Others go on, and on, and on - with thousands of photos and copious amounts of text. A bit like this one really.

8. The community members vs. the individuals

Community members don't only blog, they also visit other people's blogs, leave comments, contribute to forums, suggest memes, network on Blotanical and generally contribute to the "social constructivist" aspect of the net (Google it!). Other people don't. They're not particularly interested in the wider community - they just want to produce a record of their own garden. Pros and cons? The community members really get things going, and we'd be lost without them. But you do sometimes and in some cases (and no, remember I said that I don't mean you) wonder if they're just trying to publicise their own blogs. But then, aren't most of us. The individuals are more "take me or leave me". Reading their blogs you don't feel pressurised to comment - but neither do you always feel they're particularly interested in what you would have to say.

So where do you fall? And where do the posts you like best fall? Mine, as I said, cut across the categories. Maybe that's the whole appeal of the gardening blogosphere. In the end the blogs are all as different as the people who write them.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Four things I hate about container gardening books

I have two types of gardening books on my bookshelves : the first are about gardening, the second are about container gardening.

The container gardening books have a different emphasis from the others. They're not so much about how to grow things, as what plants to combine to produce the most attractive containers. And at times they drive me mad. Here's why ...

1. The presumption that container gardening means patio gardening, or at least that you have a large terrace. If you can use enormous containers, raised beds and so on, its a whole different ball game from balcony gardening, and much of what you need to know is no different from gardening with a garden. The book often looks great, but relegates small container gardening to hardly more than a chapter.

2. The perfect pictures. Five different types of plant in the same container, all in flower and at their best, and all exactly complementary heights and lengths at exactly the same time. Yeah, yeah. Buy them from the garden centre, give them a week to settle and they'll be like that - for another week. But then one will shoot up, another will get attacked by pests, and a third will stop flowering. And the container will spend the rest of the summer looking tatty.

3. The one-sided pictures. The most difficult thing about balcony gardening is that all the light comes from one direction. So the plants lean towards it, away from the house, and the container ends up lop-sided with the plants trailing over the balcony railings away from you. All you get to see from your living room are the backs of flowers and leaves leaning away. And tall plants end up looking like the leaning tower of Pisa. Smaller containers can be turned regularly, but that doesn't help with the large fixed ones. Look at the one in the photo for example - super. But what's it like from the other side?

4. The perfect colour schemes, achieved only by going out to buy an exact variety of a plant. Phyllitis scolopendrium "Cristatum" - whaaat ? Here I'd be lucky if I could get the plant, let alone a specific variety. I have sometimes thought of going to our local garden centre with a list and saying "I'm looking for these." I suspect the reply would be the Italian equivalent of "What about some nice pelargoniums, luv?"

OK, OK - I'm just envious because my containers never look as good as the ones in the books. But that doesn't stop me yanking them out every spring, poring over the pictures and trying again. And buying more. Maybe this year ...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

February Bloom Day

I'm a bit early with my Bloom Day post this month, but I know I'm going to be too busy to do it tomorrow, and it makes a change from always being late.

February. Not a word to bring light to the hearts of many gardeners, but if it does have its compensations it's these - primulas.

Primulas are definitely on my favourite flowers list. I love all the different colours and patterns - even if it does make it maddenly difficult to organise the colour schemes of the containers. This one is just a shade more lemony than that one. Another two are both lovely pinks, but they clash horribly. I spend ages selecting them, comparing them side by side, putting them back and starting again ...

I can't keep them through the summer on the balcony. It's just too hot and humid, and they hate it. Nor do they like our hard, limy water. So I usually buy anew each winter. This year's bunch came from a street market I passed by chance when I went to visit my publishers a couple of weeks ago. As I went in I passed a flower stall, and as I came out ...

If you want to know more about primulas - and their relatives the polyanthuses and auriculas - visit the Devonian Botanic Garden, which has loads of information. Did you know for instance that the genus has over 400 species, most of which are found in the Himalayas and China? Or that you can make wine from primroses? Or that auricula growing was a passion amongst the mill workers of Northern England in the mid-nineteenth century?

The primulas aren't the only things blooming on the balcony this month. My pansies have been flowering constantly all winter, as have my geraniums, and the almost dead cyclamens which I wrote about last month are doing well and blooming strongly. But somehow they all look as if they shouldn't really be there. Only the primulas seem to be jumping up and down and saying "Wow, February! Our month!"

Saturday, February 09, 2008

And on with the carnival...

Welcome back to the Carnival. I didn't have time to post on Thursday, and stretching Carnival any longer would be pushing it, even for Milan. So we'll have all the rest of the nominations today.

In 2006, before I started blogging, I had great fun seeing the weird and wonderful colour combinations that arose in second generation pansies, which I'd grown from seeds saved the year before. Single or bi-colour plants like those in the photo had combined to give a riot of colours, with blotches and stripes everywhere. So it was great to receive Matron's nomination of this post by Daughter of the Soil on her Purple Pea Project - a great explanation of genetics and the problems of seed saving.

Lots of nominations focused on posts with great photos. Have a look at this archive from
Nature Girl. Ladyluz nominated the first post on the page, but I was struck by some of the photos further down. So scroll and enjoy!

Gardenmoma also went for photos, nominating a post from Bliss in the Netherlands from last December. If like me you're a sucker for ice-storm photos, check this one out.

One of my favourite poems is WB Yeat's
The Lake Isle of Innisfree. It starts :

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Jodi, in Nova Scotia, drew on the idea for her post
The Bee-Loud Garden, nominated by Kris of Blithewold. Don't miss the photo of the lavatera.

My own nomination? In 2006 Sue of
Lodge Lane Nursery won the BBC Gardener of the Year competition. She wasn't allowed to talk about it at the time, but once the programme was released she posted a blog that she'd kept day by day during the competition. It was winning the competition that allowed her to buy the nursery which she now runs and turn professional.

To read it properly, read the first post on the page first and then scroll down to the last - ie the earliest - and read up.

Shortly after I'd announced the idea of the Carnival, Angie of
Gardens and Junk contacted me nominating a post by Andee, the Gardener in Chacala. Shortly afterwards, as many of you will know, Andee died. So I'd like to finish with the nomination for Growing Luffa Sponges in Chacala, a post that - as always - showed Andee's interest not only in plants but also in the people around her. Rest in peace Andee.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

2008 Garden Bloggers' Carnival

It’s carnival time – the period of feasting and fun preceding the forty days preceding Lent. The word carnival comes from the Latin – carne vale. Or in other words, Meat, goodbye ! Eat everything up quick, because from now until Easter it’s fasting and abstinence. Well - if you’re a Christian anyway. But I have to admit something. Lent may have started for you and carnival may be over – but for us in Milan, it hasn’t and isn’t. We carry on till Saturday.

The tradition dates back till 1485 when Milan was hit by an attack of the plague. For weeks the gates of the city were closed, no-one being allowed in or out – with obvious repercussions on the food supply. The epidemic passed and the city was reopened on Ash Wednesday - just when the already half-starved people should have been starting to fast. So the Archbishop of Milan asked the Pope for a special dispensation, and Milan was granted four extra days of carnevale. Somehow in the following years it never got changed back again ...

And so the Garden Bloggers’ Carnival starts today and will go on till Saturday. If you remember, I asked people to say thank you to the writers of blogs they’d particularly enjoyed by nominating one of their posts. So here we go with a chance to gorge yourself on some of the best posts from the gardening blog world...

One of the reasons I like organising these carnivals, is because I get to find out about blogs I’ve never heard of before. That happened when
Kris of Blithewold nominated an post from Ledge and Gardens talking about garden design. The post nominated is about shape and plant choice, but when I went in to check that it was OK to post the link, what did I find but another post on the same topic – but this time dealing with colour. And what colour. If I was half so gifted visually, I’d have the best balcony in Southern Europe. Not to mention the superb condition of the plants. Oh well, back to fighting the red spider mite ...

Not all the posts nominated are new though. Sometimes one comes in which I’ve read and enjoyed before, and I’m grateful that someone has jogged my memory and sent me back to it – as happened when
Carol of May Dreams Gardens nominated this post by Annie in Austin. It’s about mowing lawns, and makes a great case for doing it yourself rather than (I admit, like me when I’m in London) delegating it to some hapless member of your family. I conned my son for a year or so by looking grave and saying “Do you think you can do it OK?” in that “Mummy” tone which really means “I don’t think you’re old enough”. But once the novelty wore off and he got a bit bigger, he twigged. So then it was an appeal to my husband - Darling I’m so tired and I really must get on with deadheading the roses ... Annie thinks otherwise, and once she starts talking about her Dad, she’s got me convinced. Odd how so many of us women garden bloggers trace our love of gardening back to our dads.

Kris showed that she’s open minded about lawns though, by also nominating
Blackswamp Girl who ripped out her front lawn to plant other things. In Britain where we have fences and hedges around the front garden, lawn or flowers are a matter of personal choice, but in the States where everything is open and the space between the houses and the roads therefore feels more communal, it seems to be a different matter. At the moment my house has a lawn at the front – but I suspect that if I actually lived there it wouldn’t last long. Why waste gardening space when I’m never going to sit there? The lawn is for the back. I start tut tutting when people pave the whole front garden over to park their cars there, but if I saw one of my neighbours had created the same front garden as Blackswamp Girl, I’d be envious.

That's enough for Day 1 - enjoy. But the carnival will be back on Thursday, and again on Saturday with more. So if you've been intending to send in a nomination but haven't got round to it - there's still time! See you on Thursday!


Thanks for the photo, provided under Creative Commons License via flickr.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

To-Do List Day : February

I have a ritual at the beginning of every month. I grab my copy of the Reader's Digest The Gardening Year and spend a while poring over the section for that month to see what I should be thinking about doing. I have to adjust a bit as it's based on temperature conditions in Britain, so I generally have to check out the following month too. The official average temperatures for the month are minimum O° and maximum 8°C (approx 47°F), but this winter and last have been so mild that the real temperatures have been considerably higher. I wonder though if I wouldn't have to make changes even if I were in Britain. My copy of the book was inherited from my Dad, and it dates back to 1972. Given the climate changes there have been since then, I suspect a more recent edition might tell a quite different story. Checking on Amazon it's now called New Gardening Year and is a much glossier affair than the sober text I have. Does anyone have one? It would be fun to swap photocopies of a few pages to see what the differences are.

In any case, it's been really mild this year, even for here. No sign of the Giorni del Merlo, supposedly the coldest days of the year. Last weekend we reached 14°C (about 57°F), only a degree short of the January record. And it's sooo tempting. Could I get a few seeds in and get a headstart this year? But a look at the forecast for this week dashes all hopes - we're going to have an average of 4-5 degrees, and it'll drop to 1 degree some nights. What was I saying about exceptionally mild weather? Forget it.

So what could I be doing? It's certainly time to start clearing up, and that's probably going to take me a while. There's dead stuff in quite a lot of the containers which needs yanking out, and those that I can empty completely will need washing out and disinfecting to make sure that any fungus or virus diseases don't get carried over to this year's plants. Those containers which I can't empty will need at least a partial soil change.

I also want to move a few things. Remember my stunted hollyhocks? They made it through the winter with no problems, and today I moved them to the container on the front balcony where the previous year's hollyhocks had done so well. I suspect the problem was a mixture of late sowing and wrong position, so we'll see if they come on better this year. Other things just need routine repotting.

And then there's the balcony itself. The railings need a good wash before I put the containers back, as do the little tables and shelving which the inside containers sit on. Not my favourite job.

The Gardening Year doesn't suggest there's much I should be doing this month - it seems to concentrate on treating lawns, cutting hedges and pruning fruit trees. But it does also say it's time to prune the plumbago. I'm a bit shall I, shan't I about that. I usually do, but I have a neighbour who clearly doesn't and hers always blooms much earlier than mine. Mine then catches up, but as I'm often not here in July and August, it means I miss the best of it. Maybe I'll leave it this year.

TGY does tell me that I can get my tomatoes sown this month, if I can keep them at16°. I hope that means 16° or more, because they'll have to be in the house where the temperature is higher. But I'll give it a go. That will be the first step in this year's attempt to create a kitchen garden on one of the balconies - and having never grown vegetables in my life, it's a whole new ball game. More about that in future posts, but expect frequent appeals for advice.

But if it does stay mild, by the end of the month I shall certainly be thinking about chrysanthemum cuttings. I saw today that the new growth is shooting up, and I don't want to leave it too late. A bit of warm weather and a position backing onto a radiator and they should be OK.

What about you? What's on your To do list for this month? I shall be posting on mine at the beginning of each month this year, so if you'd like to join in just post and leave a comment here so that we can find you.

Oh - and don't forget the Garden Bloggers' Carnival. It starts Tuesday, so you're still in time to send in a nomination!
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