Sunday, June 28, 2009

Birds on the Balcony - Finally

It's taken years, but I've finally managed to convince a couple of birds that they will not be eaten alive if they come onto the balcony.

OK, it's only the odd common-as-muck Great Tit - I can't offer you anything exotic. But I'm proud as punch.

I've had a feeder up since January, but it hadn't been touched and I was about to throw it away. And then when I went onto the balcony one day last week, two tits suddenly flew off.

But if they weren't afraid to come onto the balcony, why weren't they touching the nuts?

Probably, I thought, because by now they were stale. So I replaced them - and within twenty four hours - bingo. I had birds feeding on the balcony for the first time.

I think it's just one pair that come. They turn up at exactly 8am for breakfast every morning. The female is more wary - if she sees me she's gone for good. But the male is more confident. He just waits a minute till I've gone and then flies back. He didn't spot me this morning. I was in the bedroom hiding behind the bed with the French doors wide open, camera at the ready ...

Hope he enjoyed his breakfast.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Skywatch Friday - Stormclouds Building

Italy has has disastrous weather over the last week or so. Hailstorms, thunderstorms and lightning strikes, high winds and tornadoes have caused five deaths and considerable damage.

The worst weather, however, has been in the south, and although the north has been hit, we've missed most of it. Temperatures have been lower than usual with cool breezes, but the storm that is building in these pictures was about the worst of it, and it brought no more than an hour or so of heavy rain.

The cloud started to build at about 8pm. These photos were all taken in the next five to ten minutes, from the back balcony.

You can find links to more Skywatch Friday posts on the Skywatch site. Of those posted so far, my favourite this week are these photos of the midnight sun in Finland. I lived there for a year once, and the photo brought back memories of parties by the lake at 2am ... Super.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Talking (sternly) to my mesembryanthemum

Now listen. It's time we had a little talk. How long have we known each other? Five years? More you think? Maybe. And in all that time you haven't given me one single measly flower. Not one.

I didn't blame you the first year. Well, you should know me well enough by now. When have I ever condemned a plant without checking first? And sure enough, all the sites told me you wouldn't flower if you were overwatered. So I cut back. And still nothing. The next year I cut back still further. You just turned brown and tatty.

Now credit where credits due - I've tried hard. I've tried fertilising and not fertilising. I've put you in the sun, out of the sun, half in half out. And still you just sit there. I've pruned you back, I've let you grow, I've taken cuttings. And where did that get me? I now have two of you who won't flower instead of one.

So here we are again. You're supposed to flower from June to August and what have you given me? Not so much as a bud.

Well I'm sorry, but I've had enough. You know I never throw a plant away unless it dies, but I think you're just taking advantage. You're a tatty mess and you refuse to perform. So this is your last chance. I'm afraid you take up too much space for me to be patient any longer. I've checked all the gardening sites I can find, and I'm following their advice to the letter. I've put you in the sunniest spot I can. I'm watering very moderately and you're not getting fertilised if you beg for it. But this is it - you give me some flowers by August or I'm afraid we'll be parting company.

Monday, June 22, 2009

If you garden, you're at risk ...

Now, I have to admit that the Daily Telegraph is not what I normally read over my morning coffee. And not just because I'm in Italy. And if you'd told me that I'd find myself reading an article from their on-line version and going Yes, yes you're right, so right I'd probably have asked you if you'd perhaps had a bit too much sun.

But the other day I came across an article in their gardening column - and that's exactly what I found myself saying. And ironically, it was an article about exactly that - getting a little bit too much sun.

If you garden, you're at risk from skin cancer. And as Matthew Appleby pointed out in his column, it's something that most gardeners don't take seriously. The lack of an immediate cause/effect link - the damage is done slowly over a long period - means that we tend not to think about it. Not that is, until it's too late. The sun doesn't seem strong enough to bother with suncream. And anyway we're only going out for half an hour. And we can't be bothered with a hat - it keeps falling off.

There are various types of skin cancer. Some are rarer than others, and some are more dangerous than others. But most - certainly the three most common types - are generally triggered by long term exposure to the sun. (Other triggers include contact with certain chemicals, a weakened immune system, and other factors.) And they are on the increase.

Your skin type may mean you are more or less at risk - basically the fairer your skin the more damage the sun can do. When you get sunburnt, the UV rays mutate the DNA in your skin cells. And it is this mutated DNA which years later may start to cause cells to grow out of control - forming the tumour. Click here for an animated explanation which you might want to show to your kids too.

But you can get skin cancer however dark skinned you are - and there is one type which is actually more common amongst people with darker skins. Which means that everyone needs to take precautions. Both to protect the skin and, if the damage has already been done, to ensure early detection in case anything does develop. Most types of skin cancer are easily curable if diagnosed early enough. But leave it too late and - well, cancer is cancer.

Most of the precautions are by now well-known :
  • do your gardening in the morning and evening, avoiding the hours between 11am and 3pm when the sun is strongest
  • always use suncream with a protection factor of at least 15
  • keep your arms and legs covered and wear a hat which shades your neck as well as your face

But I'd add a couple more :
  • don't think it couldn't happen to you. It can.
  • be aware of what the different types of skin cancer look like, even at the earliest stages, and if you have any strange growths or blemishes, check with your doctor.
  • In any case, if you have a lot of moles, it's worth asking your doctor if s/he thinks an annual check up would be sensible. Even if you know the warning signs (size above 1/4" in diameter; irregular shape and colouring), you won't always be able to distinguish those which are merely "at risk" from those which have just started to develop. A dermatologist will. And as I said before, it's early diagnosis which makes the difference ...

And at this point I have to confess to why Appleby's article caught my eye in the first place. A few years ago I was diagnosed with a melanoma - a more dangerous type of tumour than the two most common forms of skin cancer. Not only am I fair-skinned and freckled, but I come from a generation which knew nothing about the effect of sunburn . Until I was well into my thirties I didn't see getting burnt as being anything but a joke - if a somewhat painful one.

Then, when people started seeing the effect the hole in the ozone layer was having on skin cancer rates in Australia and New Zealand, the news slowly started to filter through. But by that time the damage, for me, was done.

I was lucky. By the time the tumour was diagnosed, I'd realised I had some rather dodgy looking moles and had been having annual check-ups for about ten years. Which meant that it was still at a fairly early stage when they found it, and very easy to deal with. A couple of small operations to remove it were all that were needed.

My check-ups are now six-monthly. If you've had a melanoma once your chances of having a second one increase. So needless to say, you never see me outside in the summer unless covered from head to toe with both clothing and sunblock. And so far, so good ...

But to finish with something a bit less gloomy ... There's a saying in Italian : Non tutto il male viene per nuocere. Which roughly translates as Not all that is bad comes to harm us or, if you like, Every cloud has a silver lining. Although easily operable, the mole they took out was in a very awkward place, right on my calf muscle. And the surgeon was worried that if I started walking around too soon, I'd rip all the internal stitches - he'd taken a fairly good chunk of my leg away. So he said - three weeks in bed. Well it seemed like paradise at first - three weeks in bed, without feeling ill, being waited on head and foot, and with nothing to do but read. But after about a week it started to get boring. At which point my son plonked the portable computer on the bed and said : Why don't you start a blog?

My initial reaction was Who me? What have I got to write about? But then I looked up from the bed and out onto the balcony. Hmmm, I wonder .. Might give it a try.

And here we are.

But I'm sure I'm not the only one with a Why I started blogging story. What about you? Leave a comment telling us or, if it's a long story, turn it into a post and leave us a comment with a link.

Oh, and if you nip out to stake the beans while you're in the middle of it - don't forget the sunblock.

Thanks ... the following photographers for making their photos available under Creative Commons License on Flickr : Hawk684 (sunburn) Annie Mole (protective clothing)

And for more information on skin cancer

The National Cancer Institute (US): Non-melanoma skin cancer and Melanoma
Cancer Research UK : Non-melanoma skin cancer ... and Melanoma

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Skywatch Sunday - or why I've never been able to participate in Skywatch Friday

Almost a year ago now Skywatch Friday took off. Just in case you've never come across it, it's an invitation to bloggers to post their photos of the sky once a week - and some of them have been stupendous. Roiling clouds , red and gold sunsets, eagles soaring against blue skies. Oh how I would have loved to join in. But as I explained to someone in a comment once (I don't think she believed me, but it's true), in Milan we don't have skies. First of all because you can barely see more than a square inch of it between the buildings, but then because of the weather conditions. The sky here tends to be uniform blue or uniform grey. Period. One of the things I still really miss about England is the way it can be raining one minute and bright sunshine twenty minutes later. That doesn't happen here. Whatever it's like - sunny, raining, foggy or anything else - it's like that for at least three days. The changeover from one type of weather is slow and gradual over a day or so, meaning there's nothing dramatic to photograph. Certainly nothing like the skies in some of the other participants' photos - like for instance this one from New Zealand .

But browsing through the photos each week, I saw that lots of people were posting photos of things against a plain sky background, so why not me too?

And that's what you've got today. The first is a tree that was in bloom around Milan about a month ago (can anyone identify it?), the second was last night. Planes in the sky always fascinate me. Where have they come from? Where are they going? There are real people on board - I'll never know who they are, they'll never know I'm watching them. Who is the pilot? What nationality is s/he? Is s/he married? With kids? They're all there now - passengers, crew - working, reading, eating, drinking and experiencing. And me. We all experience the plane from totally different viewpoints and know nothing of each other, can have no idea of the experience of the others. It fascinates me.

But I'm digressing ... Initially then, my Skywatch contribution was going to be a one-off post - a couple of photos collected over a period of time and then forget about it. But this month the weather has been strange. We've had wind (rare in Milan) which has brought scudding clouds. And we've had showers which lasted for no more than half an hour and then cleared up. And consequently the sky has been changing at a rate of knots. So I've been building up a collection of photos, and for the next couple of weeks I'll be joining in - and I'll try to do it on Friday, I promise.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Oh Leander!

Oleander (Nerium oleander). Doesn't it just scream "Mediterranean" at you. Not of course that you won't find it elsewhere - but for me, the image of the oleander has always been connected with lines of rather dusty and straggly trees lining the roadsides in southern Italy. Too dusty and straggly for me occasionally. A bit like buddleia - one of those trees which should be lovely but sometimes disappoint.

But that was before I moved here. The gardens and courtyards around the flat are full of oleanders, and they seem to thrive on the smog and pollution of Milan. All the gardens in our street have them, and at the moment they're in full bloom - I took all these photos in a ten minute walk up the road this afternoon.

Oleanders can be yellow, orange, white, red or a multitude of shades of pink. But here at least the yellow and orange varieties seem to be much rarer. Flowers can be single, or as with the wonderful specimen from our courtyard in the top photo, double.

It's said that they get their name from the myth of Hero and Leander. Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos, at the edge of the Hellespont (now known as the Dardenelles - the straits which, together with the Bosphorus, divide Turkey geographically between European and Asia), while Leander was a young man from Abydos on the other side of the straits. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way.

This went on all one summer until one stormy winter night, the waves were too strong for poor Leander and the wind blew out Hero's signal. Leander lost his way, drowned, and Hero found the dead body washed up on the shore, still clutching a flower in one hand. I don't know who it was who heard her lament of Oh Leander! Oh Leander! and decided to rename the flower but, rather than trying to make their name in botanical history, you'd have thought they'd have decided to spend their time looking after the poor girl and preventing her from zapping back up to the tower to throw herself off. Such is love ...

Though my sympathies lie rather with the more cynical view of my favourite Shakespearian heroine Rosalind, who in Act IV of As You Like It exclaims : Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.' But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

But back to the tree : Oleanders are hideously poisonous. Well, some sources say reports of their toxicity are exaggerated, but I didn't experiment. Keen as I am on writing killer posts, there are limits ... Keep them away from your kids, pets and horses, don't eat any part of the plant, keep the sap off your skin, and don't try burning the leaves or branches - even the smoke is toxic.. Check here for general information and here specifically for horses - apparently an ounce of oleander leaves can kill a 1,000lb horse.

Presuming though that you can trust your family and pets to lay off the tree, I'd strongly recommend an oleander if you've got the right conditions. It will grow in most soils, and is drought tolerant. It will survive down to about -7°C (20F), but may suffer frost damage - in which case it will need to be pruned back. However, it needs the summer sun to flower properly. Plant it in the shade and you won't get the sort of blooms you can see here. It flowers off the new growth, so prune after flowering.

They'll grow to 20ft in the garden, but also do well in containers. Look up at the balconies in Milan and you'll often see them leaning over the balustrade.

They're easy to grow from cuttings, and I started one a couple of years back. It did well at first and even gave me some blooms, but last year was badly attacked by red spider mite - trust them not to find it toxic. I had to cut it right back and this year, though it's back in growth, there have been no blooms. The cutting came from the tree below - now imagine that on the balcony ....

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gardeners' Bloom Day - May

For all of this spring, Gardeners' Bloom Day has come and gone each month and I've not been there. But then I've not been there at all much recently - work commitments and then family problems have meant that blogging has been very low priority for a while. But it's the end of the year - the academic year anyway - and even if I'm not quite on holiday yet, my workload has already halved. So I'm back and will be posting regularly again. Very regularly I hope - although I didn't have time to write, the ideas kept coming and it's going to be fun writing them all up.

But back to the plot, and Gardeners' Bloom Day. Sadly, it's not only been blogging that I've had to neglect recently, but gardening as well. With predictable results. Yes, there's plenty of stuff on the balcony, but I've not had time to look after it properly - things haven't been deadheaded regularly enough, pests and diseases have been allowed to get too much of a foothold before I got to them, and lots of the stuff I'd planned to have in bloom by now is still sitting there in its seed packets. So no long sweeping views of the balcony in a riot of colour this month I'm afraid. Just photos of the individual flowers which are keeping me going.

I'll start with the exception though. The surfinias are super, as are their stubbier cousins the petunias, though this pink one was an unintentional purchase. What I actually bought was the purple one you can see behind it. But after a couple of weeks it became apparent that there were actually two plants in the pot - they hadn't been thinned out properly. And the second was this rather gooey pink colour.

Then there are these little pelargoniums which have been lovely, though they're just past their best now. I finally got round to dead-heading them yesterday, so I'm hoping they'll bloom again ...

The mallow, on the other hand, is just coming into bloom, having survived last month's leaf miner and red spider mite attacks. Not many flowers yet, but loads of buds.

The hollyhocks are nice too, but haven't given me very many flowers this year, and the plants are a bit straggly. They're quite old now - I think at the end of the year I'll get rid of them and start again.

The nasturtiums are blooming quite well, but I'd hoped for more. They've been attacked by goodness knows what and have lost a lot of leaves, so they've become a bit leggy.

And finally there's this little Begonia pendula, which is new for me this year, Sweet, but not what I'd been expecting. The flowers illustrated on the packet are double and don't have the central yellow part - quite different. And there are a lot more of them - but perhaps that's the gardener's fault ...

But perhaps I should stop beating myself up quite so much about the lack of flowers, because looking up at other people's balconies, they don't seem much better - and I have one or two neighbours who are usually strong competition. And looking back to the GBD post for two years ago, I noticed that in 2007 my plumbago was already in flower. So far this year I haven't seen so much as a bud. And it's not just mine - no-one else's is in bloom either. So maybe it's just a slow year. The weather has been strange (but then when isn't it?). Cold, wet weeks alternating with temperatures of over 30°C (that's mid to high eighties in fahrenheit).

But to finish - a note about Gardeners' Bloom Day. Just in case there's anyone left on the planet who hasn't heard of it, it's an idea started a couple of years back by Carol of May Dreams Gardens. Carol had the brilliant idea of suggesting that on the 15th of each month everyone should post about the flowers which were currently blooming in their gardens. It's been incredibly successful, with scores of people taking part each month. I've not missed many - this is my 22nd GBD post. You can find out who's posted this month by checking Carol's blog and the comments left on her own post.

Friday, June 12, 2009


The gardens surrounding the flat have seen a population explosion in the last few months. Of blackbirds. We've always had a pair living here, but this year there must be at least four. And now that their babies are out of the nest, we're almost trampling them underfoot every time we go out. Not your shy, retiring types these. They were on the path first? Well don't expect them to move. You just have to walk round them.

Strange to see so many, because blackbirds are territorial. According to the
RSPB website they will cope with as little as 0.2 hectares of territory. But (if my maths is correct) that's 2,000 square meters. Here, they're living on top of each other. They certainly all stick to their own patch, but it can't be more than about 1000-1500 square metres per pair. (Apologies to anyone who read an earlier version of this, where my maths was way out. I'm useless with figures.)

How do I know? Because they sing to me all day long. Blackbird song must be amongst the most beautiful there is, and this year it's kept me company all day every day. By chance I came across this article on the
BBC website the other day reporting on how Great tits in the city sing more loudly than their country counterparts - to make themselves heard over the noise, the article said. Well my blackbirds seem to be doing the same - but I wonder if it doesn't also have something to do with the overcrowding. They sit in "their" trees and scream at each other from 4am onwards.

And over the past few months I've started to recognise the differences in their songs. So, come and meet Pippin and Squeaker....

Pippin has his territory in the front garden. I can hear him from the flat, but his main patch is in a tree just outside my office. Now that the weather is warm and summery, I generally leave the French doors open and he sings to me as I work. He's at it now, as I write in fact. He's an incredibly respectable blackbird. Black and glossy and with a song like liquid gold.

And then there's Squeaker. That's him in the photos. Oh dear, quite a different kettle of fish. Dead tatty to look at, and in the song department - well, let's just say he's somewhat challenged.

Not that his song doesn't have it's own beauty. But it is - how should I say it - somewhat repetitive. And after a couple of months of Flirtpety flip flop! Da da DO dee dah sixteen hours a day, I would quite happily pay for him to have singing lessons. Especially as "his" tree is just outside my bedroom window. I've been awake just after dawn every day for the last two months.

Listen and decide for yourself. The video lasts about a minute, starts with Pippin and then goes on to Squeaker. If you're in the UK or somewhere else in Europe, don't be surprised if it doesn't sound quite like the blackbirds you're used to - like people, birds have regional "accents". British blackbirds, French, German and Italian ones etc won't sound quite the same. And if you live outside Europe and have never heard a blackbird - well, enjoy ...

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