Saturday, January 31, 2009

A sad tale - but a happy ending

This is a tale not for the faint-hearted. A sad tale of cruelty and neglect which will probably get me drummed out of the ranks of the garden blogging community. If you're liable to get upset, it might be best not to read on ...

I have an office. And in my office there was an enormous Scindapsus (or Pothos, or Epiphremnum, or Raphidophora - see here for why this plant has more aliases than most of the criminals listed by Interpol). A lovely plant, which trailed down about 3ft from the top of a bookcase in the office all winter, full of glossy green and yellow variegated leaves. Then in the summer months, I'd cut it back and leave it to grow back trailing over the balcony - scindapsus loves the indirect light, the heat and humidity which the balcony gets.

Scindapsus loves the light. So what do I do to it? I leave it in a completely dark room for a week.

I didn't mean to be cruel, honestly. It was just bad planning. I don't work in the office every day, but when I'm not there I always go in the morning to open the shutters and let the light in, and then go back at night to close up. And then suddenly I couldn't get there for a week.

When I did get back, the signs of neglect were evident. Gone was my glossy, bushy plant. The leaves were yellowing and starting to fall, and were full of the tell-tale brown patches which scindapsus is prone to when it's ill-treated.

Full of guilt and remorse, I brought it home for some tender loving care. Comments from the rest of the family were not encouraging : It's dead .... Throw it away.... You're not going to leave that thing there are you... What do you want another one for - you've already got a houseful.

You can see from the photo that it lost most of the leaves, but after a month of intensive light therapy by the window, the colour has come back and there are signs that it's picking up again. Some fairly hard pruning this spring (there is nothing uglier than a "leggy" scindapsus) and it should be back to normal by the autumn. Phew. Here it is today sitting on what used to be the hamster's table with four other friends.

Because, as my husband pointed out, it wasn't the only one I had. Whenever I cut it back, I can never resist replanting the stems. And it's such an easy plant to grow that they come up every time. Just stick them in some potting compost, like these which went in last year ...

... or grow them in water. Pop them into a flower vase, top the water up once a week and forget about them. They'll put out roots and be perfectly happy.

I usually let my scindapsus trail. That way it looks good on the balcony in the summer, and obscures some boring files from view in the winter. In the garden centres you usually find them trained up mossy poles - I find this a drag as they grow so quickly that you're always trimming and they quickly start to look untidy. I prefer the natural chaos of the cascade effect.

Scindapsus comes from S. East Asia where it grows among the trees in the tropical rainforest - hence it's liking for heat and humidity. Ideally you should keep them at between 18°C (65°F)and 29°C (85°F). Mine tend to stay out until about October, when temperatures may be down to about 7-10°C (45-50°F), but then it's time to bring it in. Mist regularly to provide humidity.

But if it's fussy about temperature, it's very easy-going when it comes to soil and fertiliser. It grows happily in the ordinary potting compost I get from the supermarket, and doesn't seem to care whether I fertilise or not. It gets fertiliser when I'm watering all the plants together and there's some in the watering can - but I've also let it go without for long periods with no apparent ill-effects. It's fairly happy-go-lucky about watering too - most sources advise you to water moderately and let it dry out between waterings, especially in winter. But it's been "drowned" by my plant sitters occasionally, and has always bounced back.

It's a very, very easy houseplant to grow and to look after. And also good to have around the house as it absorbs indoor pollutants such as formaldehyde (which may be released from new furniture, carpeting and other products), and benzene (plastics, detergents, synthetic fibers and more). Scindapsus is poisonous if eaten however - don't add it to your salads and keep it away from kids and pets like rabbits (or hamsters), which might be tempted to have a nibble.

Oh - and though I've never tried, they say that by controlling the light conditions, you can also control the colour. In shade, green will predominate; give it more sun and the yellow variegation will be stronger. Most sources say to avoid direct sunlight - but mine gets it for about two hours a day all summer, and there are no problems.

Just don't leave it in the dark.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

It's happening again ...

January. It's the time of year when I get itchy. Yes, I know it's too early. It's -4°C out there for goodness sake. But there they all are, sitting in their little paper packets saying Put us in, oh please put us in.

Rubbish. We're not saying anything of the sort. We're not ready. It's too cold and too dark. We won't do anything. Wait till March ...

I rake the blogs for posts about winter sowing. Ellen of How I Love to Garden is encouraging and points me to a couple of other good websites. But are the seeds I've got suitable?

I pore over the instructions - at some length and with a dictionary, because they're in German, fruit of a trip to the local garden centre while I was in Aachen over Christmas. It was January 2nd and it had snowed hard overnight. I was one of two customers in the whole place, and the other one was buying houseplants. The staff clearly thought I was stark raving mad to have turned out that particular day to buy a summer's worth of seeds.

April, sow direct. No good. March, under glass. March, under glass. Hmm, that's promising. As we're in Italy, maybe I could get away with it now. It's warmer here. ..

I grab one of my Italian gardening books and check the sowing times. March, under glass. Rats.

And then things start to look up. Cowslips (which incidentally in German have the wonderful name of Keys of Heaven) Sow in the winter months. Rucola, all year round. OK, now you're talking. Surfinia, Ivy-leaved Pelargoniums, Heliotrope : In the house or greenhouse 18°-22°, January to March. Yes! That's what I've been looking for ...

In the house or greenhouse. Heated greenhouse obviously. Don't have one of those on the balcony - it'll have to be the house. Time to clear the books off my bedside trolley table again, and push it up to the window. Ignore those Oh not again looks from the rest of the family as what they believed to be their home is turned into a nursery. They'll thank me later when the balcony's looking wonderful and I don't have to spend money on garden centre plants.

So we're off once more. Despite the fact that it's the coldest month of the year and light evenings are still a far-off dream, it's time to start. Spring may not quite be just round the corner, but it's coming. I promise.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Death of a Tree

It started with the sound of a chainsaw. Tuesday is a day when I don't have to work early, but a high, whiny buzz coming from the front garden woke me at 8am. What was going on? Were they lopping the trees in the garden? They come and do it about every three years, but it shouldn't have been this year.

I peer over the balcony wrapped against the -3° temperature in an old dressing gown inherited from my mother - I am too ashamed to say how long ago. And looking undoubtedly like the mad woman of Milan. And see two men attacking the laurel tree in front of the appartment. Whaaat? It's perfectly healthy, and at only about 15 ft created no problems. So why?

I wake up husband and pounce - he's one of the tenant representatives for the condominium and is supposed to know what's going on. Why are they killing my tree?

One groggy eye opens and says (I've deleted the expletives) I've been in bed with the 'flu for a week, don't know and the way I'm feeling don't care, go ask the caretaker.

But first I grab my camera to record the crime. And go to the end of the balcony where I have a clearer view. And see the tree is down ...

Not cut down. Fallen down. Brought down by the weight of the snow heaped on the broad, flat leaves. Remember the last post and the photo of the tree covered in snow and forming a white hump outside the balcony? That was the laurel.

But the weight was too much. And the tree had simply toppled over, uprooting itself. I hadn't noticed the first time I looked, because the view from that end of the balcony is obscured by the hedge. And the tree had fallen against a lamp-post, propping itself up as if nothing was the matter.

The men worked for about half an hour. At the end, they loaded up the branches on a lorry and left. My lovely laurel is gone. Killed by the snow.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Heat zones and hardiness zones

This was the week that temperatures on the balcony dropped to -3°C (26°F) and we had 40 cms (about 16 inches) of snow within 36 hours. That's more than I've seen in Milan for about 20 years - and the first time I've ever seen snow heaped up on the balcony. It is however well within the limits of our hardiness zone.

It seems that every US gardener knows what hardiness zone they're in. Yet the idea is much less common in Europe. It is possible to find out though, and links to maps showing not only the US, but also Europe ( this one from is particularly good - click on the different countries to get an enlarged view of wherever you are in Europe, Australia, China and the States.

Knowing your hardiness zone isn't always much help though. First of all, because the categories seem to me to be extremely wide. We're in zone 8, which means that temperatures might go as low as -12°C. Well, yes I suppose they might. But they almost never do. If we have a week below freezing with a couple of days at -5 or -6, that's an exceptionally cold winter. Most years we never see temperatures drop far below freezing at all. Even this week we've mostly been around 0-2°.

One reason for that however is that we're in the middle of a city - where temperatures are always 2-3°C higher than the surrounding countryside. And that's another problem with hardiness zones - you need to take into account the individual factors of your garden : how exposed is it? If you're south facing, if you have nice sheltering walls, or if like me you garden on a balcony that receives warmth from the house, the official temperatures and those which your plants experience may be quite different. I've said before that I can get so-called annuals like petunias to survive the winter on the balcony just by covering them and placing them against the walls of the house. The conditions in the micro-climate of your own garden may be quite different from the "official" conditions of your zone.

However, the other problem is that hardiness zones only take into consideration the low, winter temperatures. I've said we're in zone 8 here - but so is much of Britain, and the type of plants that grow well here and in Britain are often quite different. We may have similar winter conditions, but the summer heat is another story.

In the US, it's also possible to find out your heat zone. The zones are based on how many days the temperature rises above 30°C / 86°F, and you can see how the zones are labelled at the site of the American Horticultural Society. But I can find nothing for any other part of the world. And as I lose far more plants to heat than cold, I'd like to know.

But for now, we're still coping with the snow.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Another Year Over ....

OK, so I´ve missed another deadline. 2008 was supposed to end with a review of the year posted on December 31st. And here we are, twelve hours into 2009 and I´m only just getting around to it. And one of my New Year resolutions is to try and manage my time better ...

The year started as it finished, with us here in Germany. While we were here last year, I noticed two large crassula ovata in flower, and the post I wrote on them turned out to be my most popular post ever - goodness knows why. But the search engines seem to like it and it still tops my list of most visited pages. This year they´re still there, but there´s no sign of flowers. Could it be a plant which only flowers occasionally, I wonder. Back home my own still shows no sign of blooms at all.

My own favourite January post though was the one I wrote
On the naming of plants ... - something that sems to get less logical the more they try and clean it up.

In February my primula were in full flower and I was itching to get on with seed sowing. While I waited though, I asked What Kind of a Garden Blogger are you? - bifurcated, a butterfly, a scribbler or ...??

March was a good month both for gardening and blogging. The tulips were out, and the primula continued to surprise - as I wrote in The Curious Incident of the Primrose that Wanted to be a Polyanthus. I also posted, a bit late, on Where in the world is the Balcony Garden? for Jodi at Bloomingwriter´s Garden Blogger´s Geography Project describing living and gardening in Milan.

In April I wrote about my little Hamster Helper : The Only Garden Tool You´ll Ever Need. Benji sadly died later in the year - she was by that time an old lady, but refused to accept that she could no longer climb and jump around as she used to. And fell and broke her back. We miss her.

Milan was featured again in April in the GBD post where I talked about how every balcony in the city seems to turn yellow when the sedum blooms. Even people who have no other plants on their balconies seem to have sedum - and I can´t claim to be an exception. I also talked about how many plants which are usually sold as
annuals in fact are far hardier than they seem, and do well as perennials - something I´ve picked up on again recently.

In May the balcony was at its best. It was also the month when I had a weekend in Barcelona, where I admired the way Gaudi´s architecture blended so well with the naturalfeatures of the Park Guell. It was also the month I wrote about the
Wollemi Pine, one of the Earth´s oldest living plants. It´s been around for 200 million years, but the living version was only recently discovered in Australia.

June saw me spending quite a lot of time in a local park, where I not only saw the lavender in bloom but also came across some dinosaur eggs. But perhaps the most interesting post was An Interview with Stuart of Blotanical, where he talked about setting up the site and his plans for the future.

July saw the end of the great Bill and Ben experiment, with the sad demise of Bill. And we were looking at Milan again with the post Guerilla Gardening in Milan.

In August we were on holiday at the sea. But apart from a few posts from there, I also wrote about Ten Reasons Why I Wouldn´t Be Without My Scissors And for the umpteenth time I wrote about the plants I´d lost to red spider mite. They hit late this year due to the cold, rainy spring, but made up for it with a vengeance when they did finally arrive.

September saw another interview - this time with Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

And I also inadvertently stirred up a hornet´s nest with the post Balcony Gardening - or Just Exterior Decorating. It gave me a chance though to write a follow up post which I´d been thinking about for a while : Form and Colour, Colour and Form

October had the Virginia Creeper on the canal showing off its glorious colours ...

But apart from that the autumn was a bit miserable, leaving me overworked, burnt out and in November with a bad back that had me writing about how not to shift containers around on the balcony.

I perked up a bit in December though, with the closest I think I´ll ever get to a rant about the way the EU has watered down its plans to combat CO2 emissions and therefore climate change. And of course there was the usual Christmas Quiz to finish the year.

And there goes 2008. What will 2009 bring? Who knows. But I do have plans. I never make New Year resolutions, but this year I have set some goals - some of them to do with the blog. So watch this space. I´ll be back soon.

But till then, to all of you ..

May 2009 see your seeds germinate, the flowers bloom copiously and your vegetable garden make you self sufficient. May the butterflies come to sip the nectar but lay their eggs elsewhere, and may the red spider mite just go away. A long, long way away.

Happy New Year !

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