Sunday, June 29, 2008

Green Leaf Day

What a week - a dead computer and temperatures which suddenly shot into the nineties. Two weeks ago we were at 13° C - that's 55°F - and seven days later it was 34°C/93°F with about 80% humidity. Nothing strange for this time of year, but a shock when it changed so suddenly.

I just flaked and did the minimum possible. Big mistake. While I was taking tepid showers the red spider mite came back with a vengeance. They hadn't seemed so great a problem this year, but they'd just been biding their time. And as soon as the hot weather struck - so did they. Egged on it seems by a host of other pests and fungus diseases, all of which had been under control up to that point.

So I've been pulling off dead leaves, misting and (as minimally as possible) spraying. But I don't think I'm winning, and the balcony is looking deciding straggly in comparison to a while back.

Which brings me to the real topic of this post. Emma at A Nice Green Leaf has suggested that today we mark the half way point of the year by posting not about what's blooming in our gardens, but to celebrate the foliage - the greenery which sets everything off. I'd been looking forward to joining in and showing off the glossy green of my dahlias, the giant spotted leaves of my leopard lily, the cream and green stripes of my spider plants.... but it's gone, all gone. Or at least far tattier than you'd want to see.

However, one of the (few) advantages of balcony garden is that trees are at eye level. We're lucky in that the house is surrounded by trees of different kinds including some which think are European Limes. Most of them line the alley way which leads into the garden, and as you come through the gate in summer the temperature and the humidity drop amazingly. But there is one just off my balcony which I think of as "my" tree.

The trees are lopped back every two or three years. Immediately afterwards they seem so sad - but by the end of the first summer they've grown back, although not enough to stop the sun beating full down on us. By the second year they're towering over the garden again. If they've left a third year, this one extends its branches right onto the balcony, and its a year when I know I can choose shade loving plants for the far corner.

So today I thought I'd celebrate my tree, and went out with my camera. And just after I'd taken the photo above, the breeze got up and there was too much movement for any more still shots. So here's a video. Green leaves swaying in the wind. And all at eye level. As I said, one of the advantages of a balcony. Sorry about the background noise - it must have been the wind, though it doesn't sound like it. But enjoy the birds singing ...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lavender's blue?

Lavender's blue, dilly dilly ... No it isn't. Or at least it can be. But it can also be white. Or yellow. Or pink. Or even lavender.

I came across this lot yesterday when we took a walk in the park to enjoy the longest evening of the year. The temperatures had suddenly shot up - we went from 13°C last Saturday to 31°C this - a ridiculous difference which left us all gasping for air like beached goldfish. So it was a relief to get out in the evening when the sun went down and a slight breeze picked up.

In the park, the lavender was in full bloom and the bees had clearly decided to work the nightshift to make the most of it. There were loads of them, all of different kinds - encouraging given all the recent tales of colony collapse disorder. I tried to convince a few of them to stay still long enough for me to get a close up, but they weren't having any and I came home with about thirty photos of a purple blur with a brown and yellow blob somewhere in the middle.

But it was glorious, and so was the smell. Lavender looks best in a mass, which is why I've always shied away from having it on the balcony. But I'm starting to wonder whether next year it wouldn't be worth dedicating one of the larger containers to it.

I think this was Lavandula latifolia, but I'm not 100% sure. There is a hybrid, known as Lavandin, of Lavandula latifolia and Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender) and it may have been that.

Lavender likes a moderately poor and well-drained soil - too much water will result in root rot. It's originally a Mediterranean plant and loves the sun, but many varieties are hardy in much cooler temperatures - like Britain for instance. It was introduced to Britain by the Romans, who used it to perfume their baths - hence the name, which derives from the Latin lavare, meaning to wash.

And if this has started you thinking, like me, that maybe you do have room for a lavender bush somewhere, just find a friendly neighbour who already has some. It's propagated easily by cuttings, taken at the end of the summer. Check out this article from the RHS site which explains how.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

An Interview with Stuart of Blotanical

Many of you will already know Blotanical - the social networking site dedicated to gardening and garden blogs. It's a site where I spend a lot of time, and which has not only increased the number of visitors to the Balcony Garden, but which has also put me in touch with a number of people who I now think of as "virtual friends". So I was really pleased when Stuart Robinson, who runs the site, agreed to do answer a few questions about how Blotanical started and is likely to develop. Well, OK - they were more than a few. So I'm even more grateful. Thanks Stuart!

How was Blotanical born? What gave you the idea ? Did you envisage it developing as it has from the beginning or has it taken you by surprise?

Blotanical was really an upgrade from the Garden Blog Directory that I set up last year. The reason for the extension was because I wanted to give garden bloggers a place where they could easily form a community based on their location and gardening style. But the main reason for Blotanical was to show off all the gardening posts that existed as timely as possible. I found that I was trying to keep up with hundreds of them via Bloglines but this wasn't a very efficient way of reading through feeds as some posts were weeks old by the time I got to them while others had only just been updated. It meant that I missed out on conversations that I would have enjoyed being a part of. So, the solution was to merge all the feeds and have them in a list that showed some semblance of timeliness.

Blotanical was around for a while before it really took off. I remember registering, but then forgetting all about it for a time. And then suddenly everyone was talking about it and participating. What was the tipping point, do you think?

Two things really. The first was when Susan did a review of Blotanical through GardenRant. The review was well recieved and we picked up a few new garden bloggers who seemed to desire the same things I did (ie. being part of a community rather than just blogging solo). The second tipping point was when some people started accusing Blotanical of being too competitive. While it was never my intention to make Blotanical a competitive site, there did need to be some way of rewarding those who participated more regularly. Some people took umbrage against this and while I thought it may have been our downfall instead it became one of finest moments. Many bloggers stood up for Blotanical and we came out better for it.

I know that outside Blotanical you have a “real” job and a family. You also run a couple of blogs. How much of your time do the sites take up? And how much time is left for gardening? :)

Gardening? What's that? Yer, I don't get a lot of time to get out into the garden but that is mostly due to our current winter. Spring should see me out there more often and sleeping far less than the 5 hours I enjoy now. How much time does the sites take up? Basically I spend 2- 3 nights per week on them plus blogging time from 6-7:30 every morning (except Sunday - I, and the family, need a break) plus Wednesday's get pretty much a full day. I work 4 days per week as a Business Manager at a local Private College.

There are been lots of technical teething problems with the site recently which you always seem to remedy very quickly. Do you have a technical background? Where does the software for the site come from? Do you write it yourself or use ready-made packages?

Unfortunately, yes. There have been some teething problems which have mainly been related to the Picks. Everybody wants theirs working and while we are fast approaching 1000 blogs this makes it difficult to satisfy everyone's desires. Do I have a technical background? I learnt some basic HTML at University but then taught myself PHP, CSS, MySQL, a little Javascript and am learning XML at an exponential rate. Most of the code I have written myself but if there has been other code that I can garner which works better then I will go that direction. now looks after all the thumbnails that you see on the screen, Google Maps runs the mapping side, SimplePie looks after the Picks and the rest runs on PHP/MySQL.

Blotanical is a social networking site, and as such is fuelled by active member participation. But in the past it’s seemed to me that that sometimes leads to people feeling that they “own” the site and have the right to control the way it develops. Has that been a problem for you? How do you draw the very fine line between giving people what they want and staying in control?

Interesting question Sue. For whatever reason some bloggers do take it upon themselves to share their frustrations regarding Blotanical and it's not always helpful. I can understand the frustration and wish that everything always worked all the time. Alas, it seems that life here on the web imitates life in general - sometimes the power does go out. Keeping members happy is my main goal with Blotanical so I'm always keen to get constructive feedback and here suggestions as inevitably it will make the site far better. But in the end, I've come to realise that you can't please everybody and some people just can't be pleased.

At the moment, one of the nicest things about the site is that the number of active members is small enough that everyone feels they know each other. But the list of members is growing daily. Do you foresee a point where the number of people participating will change the personality of the site? What would be the advantages and dangers?

I would hate to see the MySpace mentality creep in where some people had lists of Faved members totally 10,000+. In reality, we can only cope with networks of friends in the tens and twenties so a limit of 100 should be sufficient. I would hope that these communities would grow on Blotanical and make every member feel connected. Gardeners in the Blotanical community should always be able to forge inclusive relationships despite the growth of the site. My goals are to find better ways to highlight these types of relationships within Blotanical.

You’re constantly adding features and improvements to Blotanical. What’s in the pipeline for the near future?

I can't reveal too much but the Forums are soon to be completed (they've gone on hold while the Picks problems were being sorted out), the Blotanicals our own Garden Blogger awards are set to explode on 1 September and the Reviews facility is already well under way.

And how would you like to see the site develop in the next 5 or 10 years? Will there come a point where you say "OK, that's it. From now on it just ticks over and I move on to something else" ? Could you see yourself getting burnt out and fed up with it?

I certainly hope not. I love creating this site and I see a huge future ahead for Blotanical and for those who hang around long enough to see it unfold. I would love to be doing this full-time and am planning ahead to see this happen.
Some people have intimated that Blotanical might just be like other startups where they sell for millions after 2 years. Even if I was offered this I wouldn't take it because I treasure this as my 'baby' and look forward to seeing it all grown up and doing well - and I think this will probablt take 5-10 years at least.

What's the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to you about the site, or the nicest thing that's ever happened?

I think the loveliest thing is seeing these wonderful bloggers who support the site even when their traffic has halved or more because of some problem that we're having. These are the bloggers that I want to hang around with because they're patient and understanding. I hope Blotanical gets more and more of these people come on board but I'm thankful for those who are already here. They make Blotanical the site that it will become.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gardener's Bloom Day : Nasturtiums

Wow, are we late this year. I've just checked back to last year's June GBD post and the first photo was plumbago in full bloom. But today, although it's healthy and green,there's not a bud in sight. Hardly surprising when the temperature outside is 16°C (61°F) at 3pm and it's been raining almost uninterruptedly for the last ten weeks. They say it's all due to La Nina, but whatever it is, it's playing havoc on the balcony, with everything doing well but weeks behind schedule. We harvested the first japanese loquats from the trees in the condominium garden around about May 20 last year too, and they were delicious. This year they finally ripened this week and were completely insipid.

I didn't record temperatures last year and now wish I had. But I remember that we were already complaining about the heat and humidity. Today I'm sitting here in a woolly jumper. I don't remember that ever happening - according to the BBC's average temperatures it should be anywhere between 27-35° C (81-95°C). There are advantages of course - the main one being that I'm not complaining about the heat and humidity. But there have been noticeably fewer pests this year. Not only has red spider mite been far less of a problem, but whereas this time last year the caterpillarium was already in full swing, this year I've hardly noticed any caterpillars at all (not that that's necessarily a good thing - it also means no butterflies).

When I realised that Gardener's Bloom Day had come around again, I panicked. Apart from plants like pelargoniums and surfinia which I've amply blogged about recently, there's nothing at all impressive in bloom. Or so I thought - then I went out and found that the nasturtiums had bloomed overnight. never mind that they were in May's post last year. This year they're my flower for June.

Nasturtiums like sun - which explains why they're so late this year. They are originally from South America and give the most flowers if they're planted in poor soil - very poor soil. Monty Don suggests planting them in the dust you sweep up from the garden path - check out the video link on this page from the BBC to see why.

Apart from the great flowers they give, they're also edible - add the young leaves to salads for a peppery taste a bit like rocket, or use the young seeds as a substitute for capers. The leaves are also good for you as they contain Vitamin C and iron. But if you want to grow them specifically for food, plant in rich soil - you won't get so many flowers but you'll have a lot more leaves. For a salad recipe see here, or here you'll find a recipe which uses the flowers.

They also have antiseptic properties, and you can make a tisane out of the flowers and leaves which is supposed to be useful against bronchitis.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bill and Ben, Dinosaur Eggs and Other Updates

Time for a few updates ...

Bill and Ben are both happy and healthy, and have both grown noticeably since you first saw them two weeks ago. But differences are starting to emerge.

Bill and Ben are the marigolds who are taking part in my crocks/no crocks experiment, to see if drainage material at the bottom of the pots helps or hinders the plants. At the beginning of the experiment both of them were roughly the same size, although Bill (crocks) already had a very small flower bud. Now, after two weeks of continuing equal treatment, Bill is flowering and a second bud is forming. But Ben (no crocks) is not far behind in terms of flowers, with a well-formed bud not far from blooming, and is visibly larger (though the photo doesn't show it well).

So at the moment "no crocks" seems to be winning. We'll see how things go on ...

I've had less success however with my Sunflower in a Can experiment. On the left you can see what it looked like back in April.

And on the right, here's what it looks like now.

I think I've finally identified what is wrong with my hollyhocks and mandevilla. I suspect it's downy mildew. The mandevilla doesn't seem too bad, but there's no sign of flowers. On the hollyhocks I'm still losing lower leaves , but not at a rate that is damaging the plants, which are continuing to flower. I now have two pink and two white, and four or five more in bud. I suspect that may be what's attacking the leaves of my beans too. Anybody know a remedy, apart from chemical spraying? Can't seem to find much on the web.

And finally, the dinosaur eggs. Thank you to everyone who left comments on that post, but it was clear that a lot of you didn't really believe in them. Well, you doubting Thomases, they've hatched. Click here to see ...

Monday, June 09, 2008

What a difference some flowers make ...

One of the comments I get fairly often here is You must have a really big balcony. But I don't really think I have a lot of space. Disregarding the office balcony, where I've only got a couple of containers, here at home I have two balconies - each 10x1m. Twenty square metres in all - not really a huge amount of space.

But it's enormous in comparison to what I'd have if I lived on the ground floor. Whereas from the first floor up every flat has at least one balcony, on the ground floor they only have a windowsill.

Welcome to Colditz.

But one of my neighbours has proved that you can have a garden even in the most limited amount of space. The windows in the photo above are on the right as you face the front door. Here's the identical view to the left.

What a difference a few flowers make.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Pretty Petunias, Super Surfinias

I have a sneaky weakness for petunias and surfinias. They must be the only real rival to pelargoniums for the title of the ultimate balcony plant. Stick 'em in a container, give them the right amount of tender loving care and they'll grow, and bloom, and grow and bloom all summer.

This year though, I have to admit that I've gone a bit over the top. It all started back in April when I saw that petunias had started to come back into the garden centres, and immediately started buying. I hadn't seen ordinary petunias for a couple of years, as surfinias had become so poular here that they'd pushed them right out of the garden centres. This year, I thought, I'd go for petunias, just for a change.

But then the surfinias started appearing too, and I couldn't resist. Especially when I saw this yellow one which did so well for me a couple of years back. So I now have far more than I ever intended. And guess what - I don't care a bit.

Surfinias are a Japanese invention. Back in the mid-1990s two Japanese companies - Suntory (better known for whisky) and Kirin (better known for beer) - each developed a variety of trailing petunia. Suntory's was known as surfinia and was propagated from cuttings, while Kirin's was propagated from seed and went under the name of Wave petunias. They became immensely popular, to the detriment of the upright varieties, but now, if our local market is anything to go by, ordinary petunias seem to be making a come-back.

An enormous number of new varieties of petunia (of whatever type) are produced each year - anything up to a thousand - so don't be surprised if you've never seen exactly the ones I have here. They're sun-lovers, and extremely thirsty - when it's really hot you'll need to water them a couple of times a day. But they're fairly resistant. When they get thirsty they flop immediately and look exceptionally pathetic. But a drink soon puts them back on their feet.

They also get fairly hungry and need regular feeding with a high potassium but low phosphorus fertiliser. They also dislike alkaline conditions and prefer an acidic compost.

If they have a disadvantage, it's that they need constant dead-heading. They bloom copiously, but the blooms don't last long. And they're sticky- yerk.

But they're so lovely it's worth it. Bloom on, babies.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Balcony Beans

So how is the Balcony Kitchen Garden coming on? Well, mixed. The salad leaves have been a bit of a disaster. They were doing well, and then suddenly collapsed - I couldn't work out why. But other things are coming on well. The courgettes are in flower, and the beans are coming on nicely - they're growing visibly each day. Something is attacking the leaves, but doesn't seem to be affecting the beans themselves. So very soon I think we'll be eating our very first home-grown veg.

The herbs are still there too, but I've been fighting constantly against powdery mildew which has attacked both the sage and the rosemary. In Italian it's known as mal bianco, which roughly translates as the White Evil. And that just about sums it up really.

I've been misting the plants three times a day, which has helped - if I miss a couple of sessions it comes back immediately - but I've also had to pick off a lot of the most badly affected leaves, leaving the plants looking a bit straggly. It's now also attacking some of my flowers too, and I'm going to try a mixture of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and oil - which is supposed to work. Am hesitating about trying it on the food plants though - not sure I want my salads dressed so far in advance.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Dinosaur Eggs

It finally stopped raining this weekend and, very briefly, the sun came out. So we headed to the Parco Nord, a large park on the outskirts of Milan for a long walk.

The park covers 1,500 acres and is a strange mixture of cultivated bits, and natural areas - woodland and agricultural land. It's not a flower-bed type of park, but there are a lot of flowering trees and shrubs. We came across an area full of philadelphus - would have looked spectacular a few weeks back but it was all over now. I was hoping that the lavender bushes would be in bloom, but they weren't quite ready.

There were however some rose bushes which were in full bloom and looked wonderful.

After all the torrential rain we've had, and the sudden sun, the humidity was sky high and at times we felt we were walking through a rainforest. So it was barely a surprise to come across a number of dinosaur nests - about seven in all scattered around the grassier areas of the park.

There's quite a lot of wildlife in the park - I've posted about it before - but I always thought it was confined to birds, a few mammals and some smaller reptiles. But these eggs were clearly on a different scale. Diplodocus maybe? Or triceratops? Surely the local authorities wouldn't allow raptors to nest in a public park?

There was no sign of the parents - probably hiding in the depths of the woods. Maybe dinosaurs don't look after their nests too much.

I wonder how long they'll take to hatch? I'll have to go back soon and see if I can get a photo of the babies. Now I bet that would push my hits up ....

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