Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Mary-Anne Collis, an MSc student from The University of Exeter is spending the summer carrying out a research project into the nesting habits of swallows. Swallows have been in decline throughout Europe since the 1970s, probably because of the effect that widespread agricultural spraying has has on the insects that form their food. Collis is trying to discover the criteria that the birds use when choosing a nesting site, and to find out which agricultural practices best encourage them to nest and breed.

I think she'd have been a bit bemused to meet this little fellow, who we found when we went to Gardaland on Saturday. Obviously a swallow with extremely dubious taste, he'd built his nest in what has to be the kitschest part of the theme park - the mock Arab village.

He didn't seem at all fazed by the hordes of visitors - though I suspect it had been quieter before the bank holiday, when he built his nest. But he just sat there calmly watching us take photos, cleaned his feathers a bit, and then later flew to some nearby perches to sing us a song.

He wasn't the only one. Apart from his mate there were a number of others swooping around, presumably with their nests in similar places.

I think Collis may be on the wrong track. Forget grazing cattle and hedgerows Mary-Ann. That's old hat. What the modern generation want are roller coasters and hot dogs ...

Sunday, April 27, 2008


We're on the last day of a long weekend here in Italy. Friday was a Bank Holiday, and for the first time this month we've had a whole three days without rain. And it's been warm and sunny. So yesterday we decided to go out for the day - along it seemed with most of the rest of Europe, but that's another story.

We went to Lake Garda, where there's a huge theme park called Gardaland. Not my idea - I'll leave you to guess who chose the destination - and I spent most of the time wandering around looking at the flower beds while the other two went on the most hideously scary rides (they did get me on one, but that too is another story). And my compliments to their head gardener. There were some superb displays, including beds with thousands and thousands of pansies. Simple but absolutely stupendous.

What caught my eye though were the shrub borders and a couple of beds where the theme was bright green and white, like the bed of tulips above. Unfortunately the shrubs weren't labelled. I think I've got them right, but correct me if you think not.

Viburnum plicatum (above and first picture below)

Viburnum opulus (immediately above and below)

Hawthorn, or "May" as it used to be called when I was a child. Still is, maybe?

The way green areas had been built into the park surprised me, as did the care that had obviously gone into the planning and care of the plants. I hadn't been expecting anything of the sort. There was even a rare and endangered tree, carefully protected from the visiting hordes. But I'll post about that another time.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hamster Helper : The only garden tool you'll ever need

What's your favourite garden tool? Carol has her hoes and Hannah was recently waxing lyrical about a new lawnmower, but neither of those would be much use on a balcony. The garden tool I wouldn't be without is my Hamster Helper.

Whatever the job, your Hamster Helper will be up to it. Want to thin out some seedlings? Switch Hamster Helper to the "eat" function.

Need to pot up some new plants? Throw away that trowel! With Hamster Helper on "dig", the containers are ready in no time.

And if you have shrubs to prune, you'll never again have the problem of those secateurs letting you down at the last moment. Just place your Hamster Helper on "gnaw" and watch the twigs fall.

Small enough to slip into your pocket as you work in the garden, Hamster Helper is cheap, clean and easy to run. Powered largely by sunflower seeds, she'll run for hours with no effect at all on your electricity bills.

Hamster helper comes in two versions. Shown here is the smaller dwarf variety, which comes in a variety of colours and is ideal on the balcony. For the extra power needed for garden use, you may prefer the larger, golden variety.

Don't delay - check out Hamster Helper at your local pet shop today!

PS. Thanks to Benji for posing for the photos, and for not biting me once while we faffed about with the camera. David Attenborough, eat your heart out...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gardeners' Bloom Day Hits the Press

The good news, the bad news, the bad news and the good news.

I've got a day off from work (good news), it's bucketing with rain (bad news), and my back has packed in (very bad news). It's been grumbling for a while, and carrying a load of containers downstairs yesterday to get rid of the old soil just about finished it off. So all the gardening I'd intended to do today is on hold (result of the two bits of bad news).

But as I had some free time, I decided to follow up a message that VP had sent me (thank you VP) saying that The Balcony Garden had been featured in the British newspaper The Independent, (good news). I'd managed to get hold of a print version on Saturday but found nothing, and a quick look at the online version didn't turn up anything either. But today I sat down to do a more thorough search. And found this post in one of the blogs in their Indyblogs section, focusing on Gardeners' Bloom Day, and mentioning some of the blogs which had participated this month.

I'm not surprised that Bloom Day has been noticed. By now it's become a Garden Bloggers' institution, with over 100 blogs taking part. Well done (and thank you, because it's fun) to Carol for dreaming it up. Thank you too, Carol, for the way you reply to everyone who posts. It must take hours, but is much appreciated.

So to celebrate, and to try and forget the rain and the back pain, here are some shots that I could have published for GBD this month, but didn't. I've said before that colour combinations aren't my strong point, but I rather like this one. Or did, as I have to admit that the petunia in the middle has died. Not sure why - I suspect because of the sudden drop in temperatures that we had just after I'd bought it at the Easter Monday flower market (which I blogged about last year.) Odd though, because some others that I got at the same time are doing fine. I've been scouring the garden centres for another one which is just the same shade of purple, but of course haven't found one. Oh well, back to the colour wheel ...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The balcony kitchen garden - sweetcorn included

For me, balcony gardening has always meant flower gardening. And even though each year I have a vision of a non-stop supply of fresh vegetables issuing cornucopiacally from the containers, so far it’s never happened. The nearest I’ve ever got was a feeble attempt at tomatoes, but as I didn’t pinch them out or pollinate by hand they went straggly on me, gave no fruit and in the end succumbed to red spider mite. I did once produce a half grown melon, but I’d planted too late and winter arrived before it was fully grown or ripened.

This year though is going to be different. Back in February I stocked up on seeds, and started buying herbs, and the balcony kitchen garden is now well under way. As I can get herbs from the supermarket at €1 a pot, and needed them immediately to cook with, I stocked up with rosemary, mint, oregano and thyme – all of which have taken well and doubled in size since I got them, despite constant clipping. I also sowed two different types of basil back at the end of last month, but so far have seen nothing. Although we can usually expect temperatures of around 20°C (68°F) in April, the last three weeks have been filthy – cold grey and rainy. The temperature has been averaging around 6° -12°C (43°-54°F), and sometimes lower, so it’s been too cold. There’s no sign of a change at the moment, but presumably it can’t go on for ever ...

But many of the seeds have started to sprout and things like the courgettes and dwarf beans will be transferred to permanent containers this weekend. I hadn’t got round to buying the new containers and potting compost when I wanted to get the seeds in, so I started them off in seed pots. They’ve just sprouted and I’m presuming they’ll transfer. The lettuce is coming on well too. It’s a type with long thin leaves - I shall let it grow as a mass then start thinning out when they become big enough to eat.

And as you can see from the photo, the sweet corn is also coming through. Sweet corn. Yes – maize. You know, that 8 foot high stuff. On the balcony. And I was complaining about lack of space?

I hasten to say that it was not my idea. When my son saw that I’d pulled out a load of vegetable seed packets, he showed just a tiny flicker of enthusiasm for the idea of gardening. Keen to fan the flame, I suggested that he might like to grow something himself. And then added the fatal words : Choose anything you like.

Two seconds later he was rifling through the hamster’s food box and pulling out four kernels of sweet corn. So there we are, sweet corn on the balcony. Oh, and he threw in a few sunflower seeds for good measure.

I'm late with my tomatoes, but I shall be trying again. I’d intended to get some seeds started in the house as far back as January, but never got round to it. The garden centre have promised they’ll have tomato plants in by this weekend, so I shall nip round and buy some. Perhaps I should go for the dwarf varieties. I suspect I’ve already got more than my fair share of large stuff ....

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gardener's Bloom Day : Sedum

In Milan, April is the month of sedum and it has to be my choice for this month's gardener's Bloom Day. Stand in any residential area of town, look up and you'll see balconies lined with yellow - sometimes there'll be container after container across whole apartments. It looks great - from below it's just a mass of colour.

But I've always been intrigued about what happens to it afterwards. The flowering period is only two to three weeks. Do the people who fill their balconies with the stuff really only want flowers for a couple of weeks a year? Are they content just to look at the rather boring grey green plant for the rest of the year? Because if your balcony is full of sedum, there's no room for anything else.

Possibly yes. Because if you don't actually like gardening but just want "decoration" on the balcony, sedum is the perfect choice. It must be the least demanding plant that exists, at least in relation to the reward it provides for the albeit brief time it's in flower. Forget to water it for a while? It'll still be there. Brush against it by mistake and break half the stems off? Just stick 'em back in the pot and forget about them. They'll take, and you'll have an even larger display. Which means that you don't have to think about spending money for it. Despite the fact that it's found everywhere here, I've never seen it in a garden centre. Who'd buy it when it's so easy to nick a bit from your neighbour?

I've even seen someone guerilla gardening with it. Near us there's an underground garage, and around the entrance they'd built a low wall, hollow inside and full of earth. But it had never been used. So one day this little old lady arrives with her trowel and all her bits of sedum. And half an hour later, she'd planted a flower bed.

Personally I've only got two pots of the stuff - one small at the front and a larger one at the back. I'm not willing to give it any more space than that, and for much of the year I find myself toying with the idea of getting rid of it all together. But then April comes and I think that well, maybe it's not such a bad plant after all ....

Sunday, April 13, 2008


We've had a cold start to spring. For the last two weeks temperatures have been down as low as 6°C, and it's been mostly overcast and rainy. Crazy when on the first Sunday of March it was 22° and I sat out on the balcony in only a T-shirt (well, a couple of other things too, but you know what I mean). Lots of things which seemed about to burst into flower at the end of the month have changed their minds and continue to sit in their containers tightly budded up. Can't say I blame them. I've gone back into my winter woollies.

And then suddenly today the sun came out. Only for a couple of hours, and it was still quite chilly, but with Gardener's Bloom Day in mind, I rushed out to take photos. And found the sunlight streaming through the new green leaves of the horse chestnuts opposite the balcony.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Thanks Leslie!

Last week was quite a week. First there was the article in the Wall Street Journal which mentioned The Balcony Garden and sent my stats soaring. Then on Sunday, it was my birthday and without knowing it, Leslie of Growing a Garden in Davis sent me a surprise birthday present. And here it is ....

An E for Excellence award. Thank you Leslie!

The award originates with Katarina of
Roses and Stuff who had the idea of a “circulating” award which would be passed on by the holders to ten other blogs. Which is a bit of a problem, as lots of the bloggers who instantly spring to mind as being worthy recipients - Jodi, Carol, Robin, and many others - already have them.

But there are a lot of good blogs out there, so here’s my list. I’ve tried to include only people who don’t seem to have received them already. If you have, just feel doubly pleased with yourself.

I’m passing the award on to :

David of
Snappy’s Gardens Blog - for his ability to post every day and always have something interesting to say, even when he’s working twelve hour shifts.
Patrick of
Bifurcated Carrots and Anthony of The Compost Bin for the information and ideas that they share.
Cheryl of
My Wildlife Sanctuary and Lisa of The Hummingbird Garden. For the birds, the bees and the other creatures.
Melissa of
Bean Sprouts – for showing that little things done by individuals do make a difference.
David Perry of
A Photographer’s Garden Blog for the photos he takes – and especially, for telling us how he does it.
Jim of
Art of Gardening for the birdsong (turn on your speakers).
Kerri of
Colors of the Garden, Ladyluz of Costa de la Luz Gardening and Blackswamp Girl of A Study in Contrasts, just because I enjoy their blogs.
Sue of
Lodge Lane Nurseries for managing to keep her blog just as interesting and non-commercial as it was before, even though she’s turned professional.

Whoops! That’s eleven. But who’s counting. There’s no-one I want to throw out and several more that I could add. But I’ll leave those for the rest of you to nominate ...

Monday, April 07, 2008


One of the things which I find most misleading about many gardening books, websites and seed packets is the way they class as "annuals" plants which just aren't. Alyssum and antirrhinums for example. If you're very lucky you might see an expression "usually grown as annuals" or which is always a give-away that they're actually perennials, or the more explicit "beautiful annual (strictly perennial) flowers", but there's rarely an explanation and often no indication at all. For the beginner it's confusing, and may well lead to plants being thrown away which would continue to do well the next year if left to their own devices.

The two main reasons given for treating perennials as annuals are usually the fact that they won't survive low winter temperatures, and that they won't flower as well the next year, but neither of these are necessarily true.

Temperature of course depends largely on where you live, and if you have below freezing conditions for most of the winter, well then annuals they probably are. But if you are in a milder or more sheltered spot, wait till spring and see what you manage to bring through.

As for getting fewer flowers, I've found quite the opposite. I've got several so called annuals on the balcony which are now into their second or third year and are bigger, stronger and giving more flowers than ever before. Here for example is my "annual" alyssum. As you can see from the stem, it's no young plant. It's certainly in its third, and possibly fourth year. The antirrhinums in the first photo are the same, and are covered with buds. They're going to give far longer, stronger stems of flowers this year than they ever have before.

I did cover the alyssum in the coldest parts of the year, as I also did for the marigolds and the surfinias. The marigolds eventually gave up, so maybe they really are annuals, but the surfinias certainly aren't. This year I was misled by a mild spell back in February, uncovered them, and lost them when the temperature suddenly dropped overnight. But last year, the overwintered surfinias from the previous year flowered all summer.

Obviously the temperatures here aren't that cold. It rarely drops below about -2° or -3° centigrade, and the balcony provides a sheltered environment where the plants can snuggle against the walls of the house for warmth. But the antirrhinums were uncovered on the edge of the balcony all winter, and were even
snowed on with no detrimental effects at all.

Another plant which I'd always seen described on seed packets as an annual (now why would seed producers want you to believe plants are annuals when they're not , I wonder?) is Mirabilis jalapa. So when mine died down over the winter, I didn't think twice about it. But being too lazy to go out and throw it away in the cold, it stayed there till about six weeks ago. And when I emptied the containers I found thick tuberous roots. Not the usual sign of an annual. So I stuck them back in the pot to see what would happen. And lo and behold .....

Will I get the same number of flowers this year as last? I'll have to wait and see. If not, I'll go back to treating it as an annual and growing from seed each year. But it's going to be interesting finding out.

So don't give up on plants just because of the description they're given. If you think you can bring them through the winter for a second year, try it. You may end up with a better show than you got the first year.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Garden Bloggers and the Wall Street Journal

Yesterday was the day I became famous ... I think. I got home at about midday and checked the blog. There were a few messages to post, and then I thought I'd have a look at my statistics. They were well over what I'd normally expect for the whole day. Odd. Monday's usually a good day, but not that good.

So I had a look at the Referring URLs section, which tells me which other sites people are coming from. And to my surprise, a large number were coming from the online version of the Wall Street Journal. Yes, I know it's April Fool's Day, but I'm serious.

Needless to say, I followed the link and found it led to an article headed Blog Watch, which focused on garden blogging. And that's where the frustration set in, because only the first paragraph of the article was shown. The rest was available only to subscribers.

Frantic E-mails to family and friends didn't turn up anyone who had a subscription, or who had a copy of the print version to see if it appeared there too. But the hits keep growing. I estimate that in the last thirty hours I've had about five to six times the traffic I'd normally expect.

The article featured an interview with a blogger called Billy Goodnick, who's based in California and writes Garden Wise Guy. I'd not heard of him before, but found the blog easily through Google. I've left a message for him, so I hope the mystery will get cleared up.

Did anyone else notice a jump in their stats yesterday? I doubt if it was only my blog that got mentioned. Or did anyone see the article and know what it said and who it focused on?

Andy Warhol famously said that everyone achieves fame for fifteen minutes sometime in their life. Mine seems to have lasted a bit longer. I'm glad I noticed ...

For those of you who read my post about my ailing mandevilla yesterday (which wasn't picked up by Blotanical incidentally - anyone else having the same problem?), here's what it used to look like before the problems set in.

PPS. My strange vegetable of three posts back has been identified by Cory. The usual name is puntarelle. Spigoli ( which means much the same) must be the local name. If anyone wants to find out more or see recipes, just Google it.

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