Friday, February 27, 2009

Help - my tree is dying

I've blogged several times about my Ficus benjamin tree. I got it about thirteen years ago when the company my husband worked for closed, and we "adopted" a pair of Ficus benjamins that had stood in reception (the only very small silver lining in a very nasty cloud). One died five or six years later, but this one has gone from strength to strength. It was already a well-grown tree then - not less than seven or eight years old, I'd estimate.

The tree has always lived in a corner of the balcony in the summer, and then in the living room in winter. Our flat is horribly dark - the disadvantage of having a building lined by balconies is that they block out the sun - so it's never been entirely happy inside and would frequently lose a few leaves just after it came in. But nothing drastic.

Until this year. It came in at the same time as ever, was placed in the same corner, and treated in every way the same as ever. And then the leaves started to fall. And fall. And fall. And it's now looking very bare and sad.

What went wrong? Did I overwater? Underwater? I don't think so. Is it just old age? I remember once coming across an article on the web which said they only survive in pots for about fifteen years, but I've no idea if that's accurate. It must have been pot bound for years, but it's already in the biggest pot I can manage.

I'm hoping it will hang on for another six weeks, when I'll be able to put it back outside. And perhaps with a bit of pruning and tender loving care, it may revive. I'll take some cuttings from the healthier looking twigs too, just in case. But if you've got any other suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

To click or not to click...

It's an ethical dilemma. There are several sites on the web which I visit daily and which I'm really grateful for. They're sites like Blotanical which let me publicise my own sites, meet people and have fun. I feel I "know" the owners - we've emailed, collaborated on various projects, and as far as you can tell from a web personality, I think they're great.

But their sites aren't there just to provide a service for other people. They're also there to make money. All of them are complex, and involve the owners in a lot of work - and it's the ads on the site which pay for that work.

Because I want to say thank you, I feel I should click occasionally. After all, it's only a second of my time and if I don't, I'm just exploiting the service without giving anything in return.

But ninety nine times out of a hundred, I'm not really interested in the products I see advertised. And even the hundredth time, I know I'm not going to buy. It's just curiousity.

So whatever I do (or don't do) I feel I'm ripping someone off. The site owners if go on using the site without clicking, but the advertisers, who still have to pay for my click, if I click without real intention to buy.

My answer so far has been to look and see if something really catches my eye, and if I'm genuinely interested, even if only for information, to click. After all, who knows? Even if I don't buy now, maybe I will in the future. Or maybe I'll mention it to someone who will. Isn't that how advertising usually works?

There are other ways to "give back" of course, which don't involve clicking on ads. Like promoting the sites on mine, which I'll always willingly do. But I'm still uneasy.

And you? What do you do?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Balcony Garden Year - February

There are times when I think that anyone in Austin Texas should be forbidden to have a blog. Like today, when I go into the blog for Homewood Heights Community Garden and find that they're all out there gardening in sleeveless T-shirts. (The air turns green with envy.) Milan and Austin are supposed to have the same hardiness zone rating for heavens sake, yet I was out there today in my Norwegian fisherman's sweater and padded boots ...

However, even if temperatures aren't quite in the Austin league, the last two weeks of February do mark the official start of the Balcony Garden year. Most of the work to be done is only preparatory, but there are one or two things that count as real gardening. So here goes with a list. If you're a balcony gardener, what should you be doing in February?

It does depend where you are of course. We're having daytime temperatures of about 11°C now, and the plants are starting to show signs of coming back into growth. if you're not that far on, then you may have to wait a few more weeks before getting on with some of the things here.

1. If you have perennials or biennials or bulbs coming through, remember that higher temperatures will mean you need to start watering more often. Check at least once a week - more often if it's sunny. But don't overwater, and remember that the top layer may have dried out while the soil below is still moist. Check first.

2. Plan. What are you going to grow, what combinations are you going to have, and what will you need to do month by month? If you have such restricted space that you can do little else but buy in plants from the local garden centre, then you may prefer to let this develop month by month as things catch your eye. But if you have a little extra space (I have three balconies, each 10m x1m) and want to grow from seed, now's the time to be thinking about it.

2. Pop out to the nearest garden centre and pick up some primulas. No balcony should be without them at this time of the year. Whether you go for classic yellow, a bi-coloured display or just a riotous mixture of all the colours you can get your hands on, they'll cheer you up and remind you that spring is on the way while you do ...

3. ... the boring stuff. Yes, I know you don't want to, but if you don't give the balcony a good spring clean now, you won't be able to. Wash down the railings before you put the containers back up and have plants trailing all over the place. Sweep and wash down the balcony floor before it's covered in heavy pots. And then empty all the old soil out of the containers and give them a good wash too. With disinfectant, to get rid of any fungus or virus infections left over from last year. When you've done all that, you can give yourself a pat on the back and make a cup of tea. Now the fun stuff starts - you can start thinking about your plants.

4. If you're in a zone where temperatures are high enough that there's no longer any risk of frost on the balcony itself, you should be able to take off the fleece from plants which have overwintered, and maybe even move them away from the walls of the house or the more sheltered parts of the balcony. But be careful - if you're not sure the weather will co-operate, then leave them a bit longer. If you do move them out, check them for damage, cut off any dead bits, and clear the containers of dead leaves. Then scrape away as much of the old soil as you can without disturbing the roots and replace with new.

5. Now is the time to prune certain shrubs, like plumbago, which flower off the new growth of the year. Last year I didn't get round to mine and this, together with the fact that I'd put it in a position where it got only limited sun, meant I got a very poor showing of flowers. This year, I've cut it back hard, pruning each stem of last year's growth back to about two leaf buds from the main branch. And I've moved it back on to the balcony railings, where it gets more sun and has always done well. Don't forget though, that some shrubs - like my philadelphus - flower off the previous years growth. Prune them now and you'll have no flowers at all.

6. A few things can already be sown now - some vegetables and flowers which grow from bulbs, corms or tubers can be planted outdoors, while seeds can be started indoors. I'm trying Jerusalem artichokes up the trellis in front of the bedroom this year, and they went in last week, and so did my garlic. And I continued planting my summer bulbs, putting in some liatris and several sorts of allium. Plus some corms which for now are being referred to as Mysterius Whatthehellaretheseus. I have a clear memory of taking them out of their pots last autumn, putting them away and thinking Oh, I'll remember what those are. Yeah yeah. In the house, I've got a mix of herbs, flowers and veg seeds sitting by the bed and waiting to germinate - if they're not too intimidated by my husband's frequent laments of Do those really have to be there?

And that's about it for this month. But there's only a week to go till March - and then the fun really starts.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gardeners' Bloom Day - February

I was hoping they'd make it for today. I've been watching them for a month now, at first hardly visible amongst the leaves, then gradually elongating and holding up little swan-like heads. Timidly starting to unfurl.

But we're shy. And then, it's been so cold ...

Too cold. I've lost a lot this winter. Plants which have made it through other winters have blackened and died ...

But it's better now. The sun is shining and we can feel its warmth. Perhaps we will come out and open up ...

There's still a chill wind though, and the nights are cold. Careful.

We will be. But it's been so long ... It's time, it must be time.

And yes, today for the first time it did almost seem as if spring was in the air. The temperature on the balcony at lunchtime was a comfortable 11°C (52°F) even if it did drop considerably as the sun passed over and left us in the shade. But it wasn't so much the temperature as the quality of the light - or was it the smell in the air? I don't know. In any case, it didn't feel like winter any more.

Dangerous words. Most of Italy is still grappling with snow, and there's plenty of time for it to come back here. Am I just imagining the spring? Is it just wishful thinking?

My little cyclamen don't think so, and neither do the tulip and daffodil bulbs which are starting to push through. Or the lily bulbs. Or the agapanthus. Everything is starting to put out shoots, or to look just that bit greener, as if they're slowly coming out of a long, long sleep.

So no, I don't have much to show you for Gardeners' Bloom Day this month. But I will have soon. It's time to get ready ...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Vegetables need love too ...

Don't underestimate them ...

Peas sidle up, wanting to hug ...

Carrots need to cuddle ...

Parsnips get passionate ...

Tomatoes hold hands ...

Fiddlehead fern gets the message across ...

And so do onions, reminding you that love can sometimes make you cry ...

And freeze your heart ...

But sooner or later you'll warm it up again.

Happy Valentines Day!


With many, many thanks to the people who made these photos available under Creative Commons Licence on flickr :

wishymom - peas
Chris Campbell - carrots
beatlequeen - parsnips
Zep10 - tomatoes
libraryman - fiddlehead fern
Estherase - onions
waiti - spinach
kramerhawks - celery

And the potato? We ate it last week ....

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The only herb you'll ever need ...

About ten years ago, browsing around a German supermarket, I came across a packet of herbs with the name Bohnenkraut. Well, that translates as "bean herb" and as I cook with beans a lot, I thought I'd give it a go.

It was wonderful. Following the suggestions on the packet, I added it to anything which contained tomatoes, beans, lentils ... and soon I was hooked. But what was it exactly?

It tasted a bit, but not quite, like oregano - though I preferred it by far. Could it be a blend of various herbs? A bit like the French Herbes de Provence? I decided it must be.

I couldn't find anything like it anywhere else. I tried in Britain, in Italy - but nowhere had a German blend of herbs with anything like the name bean herb.

And so, for about ten years I just stocked up every time I went there, bringing home enough packets to last me till I went again or someone visited and could bring them out. And added it to just about everything. Roast chicken, beef stew ... I don't think two days go by when we don't have Bohnenkraut in something. I confess - I'm an addict. The recipes say oregano? basil? sage? Forget it - stick in some Bohnenkraut.

And then, while I was there this Christmas, I went to the local garden centre to buy some seeds and found .... Bohnenkraut. So it wasn't a blend after all. But then what the heck was it?

I'll cut a long and Google-dominated story short. It's savory.

Now that's a herb I'd heard of, but if you'd asked me if I'd ever tried it, I'd have said no.

Try looking for recipes with savory on the web. You will find them, but they're few and far between. Why is it so ignored? If the web is to be believed it's used a lot in Canada,and also in Bulgaria and Romania, but here in Southern Europe is largely unknown - odd because apparently it grows here. I did find the Italian name, Santoreggia, and then remembered having seen it in a little greengrocer's which specialises in heirloom fruit and veg, but apart from that I've never heard of it being used.

Needless to say, when I came home after my trip to the garden centre, there was a packet of savory seeds tucked firmly into my bag. I've bought summer savory (Satureja hortensis),an annual which is apparently milder in flavour than the perennial winter savory (Satureja montana). I've no idea which one my dried herbs are - I'll find out when it's big enough to harvest.

If you can find it, I recommend strongly that you try it. If you grow from seed, it will germinate at 18-20°C (65-70F), so start it off indoors or in the greenhouse any time from now on. And then it likes the sun.

Apart from the fact that it tastes wonderful, it also acts against the anti-social effects that can often come from eating food like beans - all these years of wondering why the beans I cooked didn't cause the problems they were supposed to ...

And (or but, depending on how you look at it), according to the ancient Romans, it's an aphrodisiac. Now, I've been feeding it to my husband for the last ten years and I have to say.... But no, perhaps not. I'll leave you to try it. You can find out for yourselves.

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