Sunday, March 29, 2009

Images of Spring

March started grey, cold and wet and hopes of an early spring seemed to disappear. But then it changed. And wow did it change. The temperature shot up, and the sky turned a clear blue. And before long ...

The forsythia came out.

It's rare for Milan to look good but if it happens, it happens in March. As we get very little wind, there's usually a pall of smog hanging over the city. The EU sets limits of pollution (measured by the level of particles in the air) which it considers "acceptable" and allows cities to exceed those limits for no more than 35 days a year before they impose fines. By the end of February, we'd become the first European city to exceed that total.

So thank goodness March brought winds. Warm ones at first, which had the trees budding and cleared the usual grungy colour of the sky ....

And for almost the whole month we've been able to see the mountains - something that usually happens no more than a few times a year.

Soon the cherry blossom started to come out too, but sadly didn't last long. A few hours of very, very strong gusty winds one day destroyed it before we'd had time to enjoy it. Just sad for the ornamental trees, but dangerous for the "real" fruit trees. The greengage tree below the balcony, which feeds the flocks of great tits and the chaffinches which live in the garden in summer, wasn't in flower for more than a couple of days. We shall see later this year.

Luckily I'd been out with my camera the day before the winds came ...

.. and just walking round our block had taken all these photos except for the one of the mountains, which was taken during a walk in a local park. The mimosa tree at the bottom of the road was in full bloom ...
... and the gardens around the appartment blocks were full of magnolias

The good weather and clear air went on for three weeks. Too good to be true of course, and March is going out as it came in - cold, wet and grey. And without the March winds, next month the smog will come back. Ah well. At least we had those three weeks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tulips - the second year

The gardening books and internet sites were adamant : tulip bulbs won't do well a second year if they're grown in containers. They'll be too small, they'll be too weak. Throw them away and buy new ones.

It wasn't that I didn't believe them. Quite the opposite. The bulbs did look smaller than when I'd got them, and yes, some of them had split into bulblets. But you see, I have this mean streak, and the idea of throwing them away ...

So I compromised. I did buy new bulbs, but I went for daffodils. And I just stuck all the tulip bulbs higgledy piggledy into one container. And waited to see what happened.

I didn't get excited when the leaves came through. Well, that was what I was expecting, leaves. But then a few days ago I noticed a couple of buds. Oh, that's nice - one or two are going to bloom. Or three, or four, or twenty ...

For the last few days they've been stupendous, closing up tight at night then opening as the spring sunshine hits. Yes, they are a bit smaller than last year. Have a look here and compare for yourself. But so what? This is a balcony, and they're supposed to be a dwarf variety. I like them small.

And the colour and the display are just as good - perhaps better. It goes to show what I've said before. Containers look better if you halve normal planting distances and pile the plants on top of each other.

Will they go on a third year? I don't know. But I know I shall try. And if you want to with yours, here's what to do. As soon as the flowers die down, dead-head them so that the plant doesn't put its energy into creating seeds. You want that energy used to fatten up the bulbs. And carry on watering and fertilising. Bulbs, like people, get fat if they're fed well and lose weight if they're not.

Leave them until the foliage dies down naturally. This can be a drag on a balcony where space is limited, and is a definite discouragement when success is not 100% certain. But it takes those two or three months after flowering for the bulbs to regain the strength they'll need to come back the next year.

And then, once the leaves have yellowed, cut them off and lift the bulbs. Store them in a cool, dry place and wait for autumn to come again.

Who knows? You may be lucky.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


Bonfire. For me the word immediately brings back memories of being a child in London on November 5th - in a time before people thought about air pollution, and when safety was seen as a personal rather than a state responsibility. November 5th was bonfire night - Fireworks night, or Guy Fawkes.

It was a day in the year which I longed for, and as the days drew in and the nights got colder, excitement and anxiety mounted. What if it rained? What if we couldn't do it?

The weekend before, Dad would start to build the bonfire. Paper underneath, small twigs on top, then old bits of dry wood and branches which he'd been accumulating and drying all summer. And we'd make the Guy. Mum would dig out some old clothes which we'd stuff with newspaper to make the effigy that would burn on top of the fire.

Yes I know. It's horrific, and now quite politically incorrect to even think of simulating burning someone to death. But we didn't really make the connection. For us, although we knew the historical roots, the guy was no more a real person than the scarecrow you make to protect your raspberries.

And I wonder now whether the real origin of the tradition wasn't quite different. Apparently, the word bonfire is a reduction of bone-fire and refers to the old Celtic tradition of burning animal bones at the festival of Samhain, to ward off evil spirits. Samhain is celebrated on November 1st (it's also the origin of Hallowe'en). And I wonder whether the burning of the Guy was not just an addition to a much older custom.

The day arrived. Goodness knows what the teachers did with us in school that day. I know our minds were only on the evening. And when we got home, time seemed to drag out eternally. Would 6.30 ever come? Would it ever get dark?
But it did, and finally Dad announced we could start. Coats, scarves, mittens, wellington boots and woolly hats were on in a trice, and out we trooped.

First came the worst moment - lighting the fire. Would it take? Had things got too damp in the last few days?

But Dad was a wizard, and sooner or later the bonfire started to blaze. First the paper would flare up. But would the twigs catch? A flicker of flame - please, please don't let it die. And then the wood would start to burn and the Guy too. We were there.

Once the fire was going, it was time to start the fireworks. Roman Candles, rockets launched from milk bottles, and Catherine Wheels nailed onto the poles which a few months earlier had been supporting the runner beans. And sparklers to wave. Sparklers were the only fireworks that we kids were allowed to touch. Only Dad had the matches, and if the kids weren't standing well back, then nothing happened.

And of course, it wasn't just us. there was a bonfire in all the other gardens too, and we'd eke out the fireworks by collaborating with the neighbours. You set one of yours off, then we'll do one of ours. And we'll all see everything.

And while we oohed and ahhed over the fireworks, we cooked our dinner. Sausages were speared on long sticks and held over the flames; potatoes and apples were set to bake in the embers.

Finally, the last firework had been set off, the last sausage eaten, and the fire was dying down. It was time for bed. And oh, how long it seemed until next year.

Why am I telling you all this? Are the photos really of fifty years ago? No, of course they aren't. But I've been tagged by She Who Digs for a meme in which you go into your photo archive, choose the fourth photo in the fourth folder and write about it. And because of the highly idiosyncratic way I label my folders, I ended up at the photos of when we were in Germany this Christmas. While we were there, some friends who live in the country invited us over to a bonfire barbeque. We started in the afternoon, but by six o'clock it was dark and standing round the fire in the freezing cold brought back all the memories. The photo below was the fourth in the folder.

I'm supposed to tag another four people, but I'm not going to. Instead here's an open invitation. Have a look at your photo files. Go to the fourth photo in the fourth folder, and see what it says to you. And if you want to write about it, consider yourself tagged.

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