Saturday, August 30, 2008

Trumpet Vine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ten reasons why I wouldn't be without my scissors

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

Balcony gardening is light on tools and equipment. You need some containers, obviously, and a good watering can. But forget the spades, forks, rakes and hoes that you need in an ordinary garden. Not to mention lawnmowers, hedge clippers and all the rest. When you're balcony gardening, almost everything can be done with your hands.

My own tool bag consists of two trowels and a small fork which haven't seen the light of day for months, a dibber which I occasionally use for planting bulbs and seedlings, and a pair of secateurs which don't work and which I suppose I'll get round to replacing someday. But there's no rush. On a balcony even shrubs tend to be kept small, so that the scissors often do the job of pruning just as well. Gardening gloves aren't necessary, but I do sometimes put on rubber gloves - the thin type that doctors wear - if I'm handling plants that irritate the skin (alyssum brings me out in blotches for instance) or if I've got a cut on my hand and don't quite feel like plunging it into stable manure.

But I do use my scissors a lot. I have two pairs - one large and one small, nail-scissor type. I use them for all the jobs I don't want to use my hands for, or which would otherwise have me tearing at things with my teeth. They're invaluable for ..

  • deadheading - especially things like horribly sticky surfinias.

  • getting rid of dead or dying sections of plants - a snip a day keeps the red spider mite away. Well, sometimes.

  • preparing softwood cuttings - yes, I know a sharp knife or razor blade are usually recommended. but in my hands these would become lethal weapons, and I'm too fond of my fingers to risk it. Nail scissors work just as well.

  • opening bags of compost - even I don't use my teeth for this one.

  • cutting lengths of twine - nothing looks worse on a balcony than long bits of twine sticking out from the plants. Trim them at the knot.

  • opening seed packets - OK, you can rip the paper. But that little internal sealed packet?

  • pruning - see above

  • cutting flowers for inside and harvesting veg

  • threatening my family - when they brush past the plants and break bits off.

So there you have it. Nine reasons why I wouldn't be without my scissors. I know, I know - the title said ten. But I've run out. Have I forgotten anything? Can anyone else suggest the tenth?

This post was part of a group writing project suggested by Darren Rowse of Problogger - a site well worth visiting for ideas on blogging.

Monday, August 25, 2008


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

We were at Eraclea Mare, a small seaside village on the north eastern coast of Italy, about 50 km east of Venice. A wide sandy beach gives way to sand dunes and pine forest, then the village which in winter has only 200 inhabitants, but in summer is full of tourists from Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia. The Brits and the French don't seem to have discovered it yet. From then on the land is flat until you get to the Dolomites - the eastern part of the Alps which divide Italy from Austria. They're about 100 km away, but on our last morning, after an incredible thunderstorm and hailstorm during the night, it seemed you could reach out and touch them, the air was so clear.

The crop growing in the field above is soya, one of the main agricultural products of the area. I went riding in the country one day and saw that they were experimenting with sowing soya and winter wheat at the same time. The winter wheat grows and is harvested before the soya really starts coming through, but once the wheat is gone it takes over. The advantage is that the field is only ploughed once, instead of twice, meaning less work but also less soil erosion and less air pollution from the tractors. The fields grown like that didn't seem to give nearly as great a yield as the one above, however, so I wonder if the experiment might be dropped. Does anyone know of anywhere else it's been tried?

I spent a lot of time walking and biking in the pine woods. I can't claim they were deserted, as they were constantly crossed by people going or coming back from the beach. But I managed to find some quiet shady paths.

The pines were Umbrella Pines (Pinus pinea) which are typical of Mediterranean regions. I was on the look out for wildlife, but there was disappointingly little. The most common birds were ring necked doves, which cooed and squawked in the trees around our hotel.

And there were also a far larger number of jays than I've ever seen in one place before. They were exceptionally tame, and would hop around on the ground in front of you, only flying away at the last minute - except of course on the day I went out with my camera to photograph them.

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

Red squirrels are still holding their own in many parts of Italy, though in some areas the greys are fast wiping them out. Despite their name, their coat colour can vary, including a variety found in the south of Italy (sciurus vulgaris meridionale) which is completely black. This one had a dark brown coat and the characteristic white belly.

Although I've been in the area many times before (my husband was born nearby and likes to go back to see relatives and old haunts), it was the first time we'd been to Eraclea Mare. I chose it because it seemed less developed and "touristy" than other places along the coast, and we were well rewarded. It was a super holiday and I know we shall go back. If you're in the area, I recommend it.

Explore some more...

For information on the danger posed to the red squirrel population by the greys : The European Squirrel Initiative

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Balcony Stalwarts

Visit the balcony in the late summer and you'll always find a number of Rosy Periwinkles blooming away. They're invaluable. When other plants start succumbing to pests or diseases and dying off, leaving ugly gaps in the containers, I pop in a periwinkle. I nearly always have a few of the white varieties on hand for emergencies - that way they can go into any pot, regardless of the colour scheme without looking too out of place. Totally resistant to pests and diseases themselves, it doesn't matter if there are still spores or eggs left over in the soil - they won't be affected.

This year though I decided they deserved to be included in their own right, and I planted a container on my office balcony, just outside the window, using a pink variety mixed in with some white Impatiens. I'm not a great pink lover, and I'm still not sure if I like it. It's pretty - but too pretty somehow. Chocolate boxey.

The combination has been great in terms of flowering though. They've been blooming non-stop since I put them in. The Impatiens was a risk - I've never had much luck with it before. But it's been fine. Perhaps because this summer has been cooler than usual, or perhaps because the office balcony is in a slightly different position to the balconies at the flat.

Rosy periwinkle is native to Madagascar. It used to be called Vinca rosea, but the name has now been changed to Catharanthus roseus. It's a sun lover, but can also cope with semi-shade. It won't survive the winter though, dying off when temperatures drop below about 5°C. I've tried bringing it indoors, but have never had much luck.

I've also never had much success starting them off from seed. The seeds need temperatures of at least 22°C and a period of total darkness to germinate. I did once try starting them off under the bed, which worked, but there's still the problem that the seedlings take a long time to reach the flowering stage. If you want to grow them as annuals you really need a heated greenhouse, or the summer is over before you see any results. They can also be propagated from cuttings, though I've never tried. A project for next year maybe.

They have no particularly fussy habits, and will grow in a variety of soils and under various conditions. I use all-purpose compost, water generously and feed about once a week with a liquid fertiliser. They seem to do fine.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Plumbago, or Cape Leadwort (Plumbago auriculata). It has to be one of my favourite flowers and there was never any doubt that it would pop up as one of my "Gardener's Bloom Day Flowers of the Month" some time this year. But it nearly didn't make it. Last year plumbago was in full bloom in June here. This year, with the cold wet spring we had it was late. June came and went, but there was no sign. And then in July I started noticing it blooming on other people's balconies.
But not on mine. Only in the last week or so have a few blooms come out, and nothing like the show I'd been expecting. The plant is green and healthy, so I'm putting it down to a change in position. Up to now I've always had it trailing over the balcony rail, whereas this year I decided to train it up the trellis backing on to the house. And I think it's just been in too much shade to bloom properly.

There's a lot of contradictory information about the plant on the web. You'll read it
thrives in the heat and the sun. Or that it should be protected from too much direct sunlight. That it can't take temperatures under 7°C. And that it will survive frosts. That it does well in poor soil. That it likes a rich compost. The list goes on.

In my experience it's a tough little plant that will grow under a range of conditions. I don't think there's any doubt that it likes the sun (it's native to South Africa after all). But I find that its also fairly hardy. I cover mine in winter but most of my neighbours don't and it seems to survive, despite the fact that temperatures may be well below zero at times.

I don't give mine any special treatment and, apart from the lack of blooms this year, have never had problems. It's grown in ordinary soil, and fed and watered much the same as any other plant. As the water here is very hard, plants which are really particular about acidic soil just don't make it under normal watering conditions, but I've never had problems on that front.

Another reason I may not be getting many blooms this year is because I didn't prune this spring. Plumbago blooms off the new wood, and can be cut back fairly enthusiastically to encourage new growth and keep it in check. In a garden it can reach three or four feet high, so in a container it needs a bit of restraint.

It's also one of the few plants I have which doesn't seem to suffer from red spider mite - or anything else for that matter. It's poisonous, and for those of you who have the problem, deer will avoid it. (That does come from the net - we don't get many on the balcony.) It does attract butterflies, though as I've never had caterpillar damage i presume it's just for the flowers.

For me, the powder blue colour of my plant is the "classic" plumbago colour, though I've seen some darker blue varieties which were also very striking. Personally, I'm less keen on white.

One last thing - if you're growing it for the first time, don't panic if nothing seems to be happening in spring. It's deciduous and the new leaves come through very late. When everything else is bursting into life it's still there, brown and dead looking. But it isn't. Stick with it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Four O'Clock Follow Up

On Gardeners Bloom Day last month, I wrote about mirabilis jalapa, the Four O'Clock plant. I said that the plants I'd grown from tubers were blooming, but that all they'd given me were either red or pink flowers - a bit disappointing given that the plant can have a variety of colours, the flowers can be bi-coloured, and that sometimes you'll even get two different colours on the same plant.

But I also had some others coming on which I'd started from seed, and they're now blooming. And lo and behold one of them is producing a mix of yellow and pink flowers, some of them with rather natty stripey sections.

As I was moving them around last week I clumsily broke off a large chunk of one of them. It was full of buds, so I thought I'd stick it in a jar of water to see if the flowers would open anyway. I then forgot about it till yesterday, only to find that within the week it had put out roots. This has to be the easiest plant in the world to propagate ...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

You still think I'm exaggerating?

I left them for three days. Just three days. They'd not been doing well. Every time I lifted the leaves hordes of whiteflies would swarm around. They're not a pest that I've ever had before, but then I've never tried growing vegetables either. I didn't want to spray things that I was going to be eating, and found out too late that planting marigolds or nasturtiums with the plants would have helped. But they were bearing up, and I hoped that they might last long enough to give me at least a few courgettes.

And then for three days I couldn't get to my office, where I have my vegetable balcony. The containers are tucked out of sight of the clients. From the office window all you see is some pretty flowers trailing over the balcony railings. but stick your head around the French doors and there they are. Or were.

Just three days. And they hit. Maybe they'd been there before and I'd not noticed, but I went away leaving two relatively healthy looking plants and came back to this.

No, it wasn't just the whitefly, though they clearly weakened the plant. The webbing gives it away.

Red spider mite.

OK, OK we all know I'm obsessed by them. But looking at this, do you really think I'm exaggerating?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Wild Weather

The worst is almost over ... or at least, it should be. July is usually the hottest and stickiest month here in Milan, with combined temperatures and humidity regularly giving a perceived temperature of over 38°C (100°F) - sometimes well over. All day you're clammy and dehydrated, and at night it becomes impossible to sleep. Despite three or four tepid showers a day, you feel devoid of energy and irritable, can't work, can't think and want do do nothing but lie in front of a fan on full blast.

Well, that's me anyway - and most of the plants on the balcony. Some people, like my husband, revel in it. I flake, my plants droop pathetically, and he decides to spring clean the house. No accounting for tastes. Perhaps I should suggest he takes on the dead-heading and the staking and the 101 other jobs that I can't find the energy for.

In comparison with other years though, this July was better than usual. Air temperatures didn't ever go above about 36°(97°F), and the humidity was only a real problem for about ten days. In between hot spells, temperatures dropped to an almost pleasant 30°C (86°C) and the hottest, most humid days usually finished with a storm which brought the nighttime temperatures down.

But what storms. The north of Italy made the national news constantly during July as hailstorms, wind and torrential rain brought down trees and scaffolding, and flooded roads, houses and railway lines. The hail was sometimes as big as small icecubes. It hit the balcony plants hard , particularly those trailing over the balcony rails like the ivy-leaved pelargoniums and surfinia, whose flowers were ripped to pieces. And several times a crash in the night announced that yet another large pot had been blown over by a wind that here is called a tromba d'aria. The literal translation is blast of air, but it's usually translated as a tornado. However, I think a more accurate term is a downburst. It's a wind which arrives suddenly with no warning, and lasts for no more than about ten minutes, but in that time reaches gale-force strengths. We have them regularly and they can do a lot of damage. One arrived last night as we were sitting watching TV (OK, OK I admit it - Brothers and Sisters. In this heat that's about the maximum my intellect can manage) and within thirty seconds half the balcony had blown into the living room through the french doors. Ten minutes later there wasn't a whiff of breeze, but for the next half hour there was a thunderstorm and torrential rain. We found out this morning that the storm had brought down six large trees around the city, injuring two people, and again causing widespread flooding..

In theory, now that we're in August things should gradually change. By the end of the month we should be looking towards autumn, with noticeably cooler temperatures. But the forecasts are for hotter than average temperatures so who knows ...
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