Monday, March 31, 2008

A nasty attack of ... what?

The balcony is now starting to turn green again, but not everything is looking happy. I think I may be losing my mandevilla and my hollyhocks.

The mandevilla has been slowly losing leaves all winter, and I hoped it was just a reaction to the cold. I left it outside this year, though well protected. But the leaf loss seems to be speeding up. Leaves start to turn brown, dry and then fall, so that the plant is getting a bare straggly look. A fungus infection? I've tried spraying, but it hasn't helped.

The leaves of the hollyhocks, on the other hand, first wilt and then slowly turn yellowish brown and die. There is also a whitish discolouration on some of the otherwise healthy looking leaves. Another fungus infection? I know hollyhocks are very prone to rust. Or a virus this time?

If anyone recognises the problems (and knows a remedy) please let me know. Otherwise I think I'm going to have to throw them all out.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Amazing what you can get in a can these days ...

One of my clients is the Environment Sector of a local government authority here in Milan. Needless to say they're very interesting to work with, and I occasionally come home with the "freebies" they're distributing to promote the work they're doing to protect the environment in the area.

Last autumn, one of these was a "flower in a can". Or rather, seeds to grow in a can of growing medium. As it wasn't planting time, I didn't really think any more about it. But when I pulled it out of my seed box a couple of days ago, I started to get curious. Nice idea to try and get people to grow flowers, but was it really an environmentally friendly give-away?

My first doubt was the packaging. It comes in an aluminium can with a plastic top (plastic?). There's a ring pull both ends of the can - the top comes right off, while at the bottom there's just a drainage hole. You add water at the top and then use the plastic top as a drip tray.

There is a "recyclable" symbol on the can, and I presume that refers also to the plastic. However, I would have preferred packaging which was biodegradable. I'm not sure what the growing medium is - it looks like wood chippings, but one website I found seemed to describe it as vermiculite, sand and peat. I say "seemed to" because unfortunately (for me, that is) the site was in Dutch - not my best language. It doesn't seem to be anything noxious, but the use of
peat is worrying, even if there has recently been equal criticism of the use of certain commercial alternatives - see this post by Patrick of Bifurcated Carrots.

And what about transport miles? How much energy is consumed and pollution created in transporting it? When I opened it, I rooted around and found exactly two sunflower seeds. The packaging, with dry contents, is not heavy but it is relatively bulky.

There, however, the local authority gained brownie points. It's produced in the Milan area, so the transport impact would be minimal and they're also supporting the local economy - another of their responsibilities.

The transport effect would not, however, be as unimportant for other customers. This range of products (you can get various flower and vegetable seeds other than my sunflowers) is distributed not only all over Europe, but also as far as Japan and China.

How much does it cost to send two sunflower seeds that far, I wondered? I couldn't find out. The only distributor whose website gave prices was the UK distributor
Regent House. Their website announced that the product was on special bargain offer because they're discontinuing the line, so I clicked eagerly to check it out. £1 each but only available in packs of 12, and some lines in the range only available in packs of 36. Obviously not aimed at individuals. If you just want one, you can get it over the net on EBay or at Amazon for anything from £3-£5, plus postage. In other words, for your two sunflower seeds you're going to end up paying at least £5-£7. (For those of you not in the UK, that's roughly €7 or $3 - though the current weakness of the dollar masks how expensive that really is). They're the same seeds as are often sold for bird food - I checked out the price on the RSPB site and it's just over £1 per kilo of seeds (about €1,20 or 50 US cents for 2.2 pounds of seed ). And as for the transport miles if you bought over EBay ...

All in all not a product I would recommend. I hope that this year the Environment Sector will go back to their idea of a couple of years back. That year, they just gave out packets of seeds.

But I've got mine now, so we'll see what happens. It's supposed to germinate in about a fortnight. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Strange vegetables

Thirty years ago, when I first came to live in Italy, the food you could get here - whether in shops or in restaurants - was 100% Italian. There were no ethnic supermarkets, the main supermarkets stocked only Italian products and though an Indian restaurant did open shortly after I arrived, it closed again about six months later because of lack of custom. Coming from an already cosmopolitan country like Britain, it was rather a shock. (Though nowadays as I pass the McDonalds which dot the city at about a hundred yards from each other, I do sometimes feel somewhat nostalgic).

Needless to say, things have changed and Milan is now as cosmopolitan as anywhere else, with a large migrant population. Plus the fact that increased opportunities for travel have meant that the Milanese too are more open to foreign food. Ethnic restaurants and supermarkets abound, and in the last couple of years even mainstream chains have started to cater for non-Italian tastes. You want yams or fresh coriander? Basmati rice or baked beans? Just pop into your local supermarket.

Recently though I've found a couple of things which are not particularly "ethnic" but which I'd still never come across before. The first were banana shallots. The one in the photo was nearly 7 inches long.

Checking on the Internet it didn't seem to be particularly unusual, so you may be wondering what the fuss is about. But I'd certainly never seen them before. I cooked them in a pasta sauce instead of onions, and roasted. Both ways worked well - they have a nice, mild flavour, but don't really seem much different to ordinary shallots.

The other vegetable though has really got me stumped. The Italian name on the label on the market stall was spigoli - roughly translated as "jutting out corners", which is presumably a reference to the bits in the middle. But an Internet search produced nothing.

I cooked it in a very small quantity of water and oil, not even sure which bit or bits I was supposed to eat. The green bits were nice, but nothing special. Just greens. The white spikes in the middle were a bit bitter, but OK. I'm not sure I'd bother to get it again - there are other greens which I like better. But it was curious. Has anyone ever come across it? Or even grown it?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Bunny on the Balcony

This morning the Easter Bunny came to visit, and left lots of chocolate on the balcony. There was chocolate in the primulas ...

Chocolate in the spider plant, in the lychnis and in the philadelphus ...

Chocolate amongst the cyclamen ...

Chocolate just about everywhere.

It's turned cold in the last couple of days - only 5°C this morning - and her poor little paws were frozen by the time she'd finished (I know - I was there and I felt them. I had to make her a cup of tea afterwards to warm her up again).

Then, when the rest of the family got up or arrived, the annual Balcony Chocolate Hunt began. A free for all with only one rule - anyone who damages my plants gets their paws chopped off.

And then we all sat down to breakfast (eggs - obviously). But wasn't she a generous little bunny?

Happy Easter to everyone !

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mountains, Tomato Bloggers and Spring Minestrone

We had minestrone for dinner yesterday - it's one of my specialities and I make it regularly all winter. But apart from referring to vegetable soup, minestrone also has another meaning - in Italian it's used to mean a hotch-potch. Which is what this post is going to be - a minestrone hotch-potch of unconnected themes.

A couple of posts back I was bemoaning the fact that we should be able to see the Alps from Milan, but they're almost always obscured by the pollution haze. Well, yesterday there was a cold wind coming down from the mountains, and it blew all the smog away. So here they are - from the roof of our appartment block this morning. They look better if you click on them to get a bigger picture.

There's a website which I collaborate with called Rat Race Rebellion. They're dedicated to encouraging a slower, more human pace of life - and in particular, work from home. Every day they run ads for work from home jobs, and I noticed that today one of them was an advert for tomato blogger. Tracing the link back it came from a site called Tomato Casual . Check it out if you're interested in growing tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, cooking with tomatoes - or just about everything else tomato related. would you believe that in Japan, for instance, they even make beer out of tomatoes? (Having spent quite a lot of time there, I would, I would.)

Tomorrow is the first day of spring officially, but for the last week or so here it's been clear that winter is over. The trees are starting to look green again, and even when it's been cold there's been that difference in the quality of the light that says the season has changed. I spent the weekend continuing my post-winter clearup on the balcony, and rearranged the containers. Even the plants that have been blooming all winter are now starting to look as if they really want to be there, and there are more and more jobs to be done. And it's that lovely time of year when every time you go outside, you know there might, just might be something there which wasn't the last time you looked.

And so it all starts again ...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The flower that brought down the stock market

It's Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day again. Spring is definitely here and since last month there's a noticeable difference on the balcony. The seeds and corms that I planted are starting to push through the soil, and everything else is developing leaves again or putting out buds. The things which have been flowering all winter - pansies, pelargoniums, cyclamen - are continuing to do so, but they're looking greener and happier, have come back into growth and doubled the number of flowers.

The only new blooms this month though, are my tulips.

I don't like tulips. I've never grown them before and only got them this year because when we were are the December Crafts Fair, my son conned me into it. I'm a daffodil person myself, and this bunch of bulbs hasn't changed my opinion much. They're quite jolly, and I've made them look as good as I can with sneaky camera angles. But they've been frustrating. They're dwarf tulips - just about the right size for the balcony. But some are far more dwarf than others, making the container look odd. And they've all come out at different moments and lasted a relatively short time. They look great at the bud and "just open" stage, but half an hour of sun sends them blowsy. So that I now have two containers with some tall, some short plants; some buds, some flowers, some that need deadheading. And all in a matter of days.

I'm sure they work in a garden where you can plant large quantities. And one of the trips on my wish list is a biking tour round the Dutch bulb fields at tulip time. But on the balcony, I think I'll save the space for other things.

Not everyone has always thought like me though. In the 17th century speculation in tulip bulbs brought down the Dutch stock market.

The first modern stock exchange was opened in Amsterdam at the beginning of the 17th century, not long after the tulip had been introduced into western Europe from the Ottoman Empire (the word tulip apparently has its roots in the Turkish word for turban). The colours of the flowers were qualitatively different from any other flowers then available, and they were soon very much in fashion. First the wealthy and then the middle classes started to buy the bulbs, and prices soared. And then in the 1630s people began to speculate in tulip bulbs, buying them for immediate resale. Prices reached ridiculous levels - the all time record was the sale of a rare Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen bulb for 5,200 florins, but 2,000 was relatively common. And this when the average annual wage was 150 florins. Tales are told of unwary travellers who, failing to recognise the bulbs and believing them to be some kind of onion, picked them up to eat and found themselves thrown into jail for theft by the irate ex-owners.

Investment in the bulbs reached crazy proportions, many people selling their property or using their life's savings to finance their investment, and by 1636 the bulbs were traded on stock exchanges around Holland. Overseas investors also cashed in on the trend.

But in 1637, the market collapsed. At an auction the buyers just stopped buying. The market panicked, investors started to sell, and prices plummeted. Huge amounts of money were lost and many people went bankrupt, leading to an economic recession.

The period was given the name of tulipomania. Much as I love flowers, I don't think there are any I would bankrupt myself for, even though my husband's comments each time I head for the garden centre might suggest the opposite. But apparently it's happening again, this time in Britain with the snowdrop. According to an article in The Independent, bulbs have been selling on E-bay for around £128 each. Crazy...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The curious incident of the primrose that wanted to be a polyanthus ...

What's the difference between a primrose and a polyanthus? They're both part of the primula family, but I'd always thought that primroses had one flower per stalk, while polyanthuses had long stalks with a cluster of flowers on top. And yet year after year, I've found that after a few weeks of producing compact, round heads of single blooms, some of the plants I'd thought to be primroses would suddenly schizophrenically shoot out a long stem with numerous flowers, breaking the symmetry of the plant.

And lo and behold when I went out on the balcony today to check if anything needed watering ....

Clearly a primrose with ambitions.

Or is it? Did I buy polyanthus thinking they were primroses? In which case, why were the original flowers single stemmed?

Browsing the web I came across this explanation on :

It happens, however, that primroses are produced in clusters, as polyanthuses are, but they appear to be produced singly, because the stem that carries the cluster is very short, and the secondary stem, or peduncle that carries the flower, is very long. Now and then a common primrose determines to explain the case to the young botanist, and then we see a stout stem bearing on its summit a cluster of primroses.

Leaving aside the fact that no way do I come under the heading of a "young botanist", the rest seems accurate. The offending stem is definitely stout, and peering down into the stems at the bottom of the plant, well yes - they do seem to come from a cluster. It's difficult to see though without harming the plant.

It's not clear who wrote the article, nor how authoritative it is, and I can't find the same explanation anywhere else. But then I can't find any explanation anywhere else. Does anyone know?

Sunday, March 09, 2008


Milan is currently awash with yellow.

Forsythia is everywhere you turn. In the streets ...

in the gardens of apartment blocks ...

and along the canal.

The mimosa, symbol of International Women's Day, came into bloom just in time for March 8th.

The local council have filled the flower beds in the streets and squares with yellow pansies.

And the allotment holders have planted daffodils on the canal banks.

On the balcony, I have my primroses.

March is a very yellow month.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Where in the world is the Balcony Garden?

Jodi of Bloomingwriter set everyone some geography homework - a post on the place where you live. The homework was to be ready for the end of February - and guess who had to ask for an extension? Well, it was a short month, wasn't it? Not fair.

But this morning, with the excuse that I had to go to the Consulate and get my passport renewed, I zapped round town taking photos. So here goes ...

Milan is in the north of Italy, in the Region of Lombardy. Go north and after about a forty minute drive, you're at Lake Como (drop in and say hello to George Clooney while you're there)and the border with Switzerland. Well, forty minutes if the motorway isn't blocked with traffic, that is.

It's an industrial area, with fashion and design (especially furniture design and production) playing an important role in the economy. There was tradionally a lot of heavy industry, but like in much of the rest of the Europe, this is no longer an option. In its place, the local government is trying to promote the area as a centre for bio-technology and the service sector.

The climate is appalling - cold and foggy all winter and hot and humid all summer. Spring and autumn are definitely the best periods.

If you look at your guidebook, you'll probably see that it advises you to spend half a day in Milan - but only if you happen to be passing through on your way to somewhere more interesting. Milan is the commercial centre of Italy and has little in the way of tourist attractions. The exceptions are Da Vinci's The Last Supper (recently restored, well worth seeing, but you have to book months in advance) and the cathedral, one of the most amazing pieces of Gothic architecture in the world. It's nothing special inside, but go up on the roof and wander around looking at the hundreds of carved gargoyles and other features which make it, in my experience at least, unique.

See the arch on the left of the Cathedral Square? That's the famous 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Lined with classy shops, restaurants and cafés (oh, and a McDonalds, which provoked considerable public consternation when it opened a few years ago) the Gallery is perhaps the real centre of Milan, and a place to see and be seen. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – when in Milan, sit and have a coffee in the Galleria. But only if you have an extremely healthy bank balance.

Built between 1865 and 1877, the Gallery is built in the form of a cross. The centre is covered by a 164 ft high glass dome, from which the architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, fell to his death only two days before the gallery was officially opened by the King, Vittorio Emanuele II.

Just to one side of the centre, you’ll notice a mosaic of a bull in the marble floor. Look closely and you’ll see that a certain part of his anatomy has been worn away – and you’ll probably see a little crowd of people queuing up to stand there on one leg and twizzle around three times. Try it - it’s supposed to bring you luck. (Perhaps someone should have told that to Mengoni).

At the other end of the Galleria you'll find yourself in Piazza della Scala, looking at the opera house - this time far more impressive inside than out. The gentlemen on the left of the photo with a pigeon on his head is Da Vinci.

Still in the centre you might want to nip up to the castle (that's it at the end of the road) or walk along the pedestrian shopping area of Corso Vittorio Emanuele to Piazza San Babila, where you'll notice an odd pineapple looking thing, a fountain and a few bushes topiarised into humps. You've got it haven't you? It's a representation of Lombardy - the mountains, the lakes and the hills.

And from there it's only a short walk to the shopping streets of Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga. I know, I know - it's hard to choose between Valentino, Prada and Armani, but remember ... you've only got half a day, and there's still the old area of the Brera to visit. There you'll find the main art gallery of Milan, the Pinacoteca di Brera, which is home to several paintings well worth seeing, including Mantegna's Lamentation...

Wandering around, you will see some interesting architecture - like the Central Station or the Law Courts (above) both typical of the Fascist period. But mainly Milan is a city of apartment and office blocks, mostly ugly ones. There are 7,000 inhabitants for every square kilometre, and about 1.3m in all. Which means building piled upon building, chaotic traffic, almost no green spaces and dreadful pollution. In theory you can see the Alps from Milan. In practice it only happens a few times a year, when there's been a particularly strong wind.

We're lucky - we do at least have a strip of garden between us and the next block ....

... other people have to be more creative. This garden is eight storeys up.

Milan doesn't have a river, so there's not even that to break up the monotony. There are some canals, though most have now been covered up, and I'm lucky enough to live right by one of them - the Martesana. Along the Martesana is one of the few cycle paths in the city, and it takes you right out into the country.

So what's good about Milan? Not a lot.. The health service is excellent, and the transport system works extremely well, but that's about all I can think of. Not, of course, that the average Milanese would dream of leaving their car at home and taking the bus. But with four metro lines and an overground system of buses and trams, it's very easy, and very cheap, to get around. The trams come in various shapes and sizes from the old ones - which are slow, rattly boneshakers, freezing cold in winter and stifling in summer but with loads of character - to the new ones - supposedly high-speed, but actually not as they're always stuck behind the old ones. Not much character at all, though they have sweet little noses, but they do have heating and air-conditioning.

In case you haven't worked it out yet, I don't like the place. But then I don't like cities. Full stop. Unfortunately, my husband does ...

OK, that's enough. My homework was late Jodi, but I wrote more to make up. Can I have an "A" please ? :)

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