Friday, July 31, 2009

A weed that can stay - for a while

The definition of a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. And this blackberry bush, which is taking over the hydrangea, has definitely got to go. But maybe not quite yet. Maybe I'll wait until all the fruit has matured before I attack it.

Not that I have much hope of doing anything definitive. This will be about the fifth time I've tried to get rid of it. I cut it right back, dig out what I can of the roots - but when I come back after a year or two, there it is again. Does voodoo work on plants I wonder? Perhaps if I take a bit of the stem and stick pins in it ...

But for the next few weeks, while it goes on producing blackberries for tea, it can stay.

Blackberries grow wild in the woods and parks around here, and when I was a child late July and August was always blackberrying time. Walking through the park behind the garden today, which is in part left to grow wild as a nature reserve, I saw plenty of families carrying on the tradition. Quite a lot of people round here will have had blackberries for dessert tonight.

If you are worried about maggots incidentally, just pop the berries into some salty water for a while. The maggots will zoom out. If you're like me, you them rescue them, wash them off, and put them back on the plant - but I leave that up to you. Obviously you need to rinse the berries well before eating them - they're wonderful with cream.

So if you're wondering what to do with the kids these holidays, make a picnic, head for the woods - and enjoy.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Skywatch Friday : London Sunset

The day I arrived back in London, we had this stupendous sunset. The photos were taken from my back garden, all within about ten minutes.

If you're in Europe, Skywatch Friday actually starts on Thursday (yes, I know it's confusing, but just think about the time difference between here and the States). I posted just two minutes after the list opened today and there were already forty posts up. Of those, my favourite so far is a beautiful picture of cloud from PostcardsfromWildwood - a UK blog. But you can check them all out on the Skywatch site.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blast from the Past Tuesday : On the Naming of Plants

Do you ever think back to all those posts you've written, especially those which were your favourites, and wonder how many people still read them? I do. And so for the next few weeks I'm going to be "reviving" an old post, from at least a year ago, every Tuesday. If you'd like to join in and do the same - and it doesn't have to be on Tuesday - just leave a comment below with a link to your blog so that everyone can find you.

This week's Blast from the Past post comes from January 2008.

If there's a plant which I find easy to grow, it's Epipremnum aureum, commonly known as Hunter's Robe. That's the plant in the photo.

If that last paragraph had you reaching for the comment button to tell me I got it wrong - hold on. How about Scindapsus aureus, Pothos aureus and Raphidophora aurea? Oh, and as a common name, Devil's Ivy, Taro Vine or Silver Vine. Or Golden Pothos. Or Ceylon Ivy. Or my favourite - Centipede Tongavine. Yep, all the same plant.

I don't have a problem with the common names - it's fairly obvious that each region will decide its own name for a plant and more than one may filter through to common use. But why four official botanical names?

Well, according to the Royal Horticultural Society they're not actually all official, only one is. The others are referred to as "synonyms". And the reason for the alternatives is much the same as the reason for the difference in common names - before the era of global communication, botanists working in different parts of the world would often give "official" names to plants, unaware the plant had already been classified and named by someone else. Occasionally two different people might even manage to give the same name to two different plants.

So someone has to decide which name to use. The rule used to be that whichever name was given earliest won. But that occasionally meant that a name which had become more generally used lost out. So common sense now sometimes prevails and a later, but more widely used name is given official status.

The other reason that alternative names may exist is that sometimes they've just got it wrong, classifying a species under the wrong genus, so that the name has later been changed. Forget Coleus, for instance. It's now Solenostemon.

Again, common sense will sometimes prevail and the taxonomists (the people responsible for classifying plants) will sometimes let us keep the more common name, even when a change of genus is concerned. We were saved from Freesia becoming Anomatheca, for instance. Phew!

And then there was the case of chrysanthemums. In 1989 it was decided that the genus name should be changed to --- umm, er, what was it again? Doesn't matter. It didn't catch on, and at a recent International Botanical Congress (which is where they decide these things), they gave in and changed it back again.

Now personally, it took me a couple of minutes to get my brain around Solenostemon. I typed solestemon, solestenum and a couple of other variants before I just gave up and copied it out letter by letter.
I think I may just stick with Coleus ...

Monday, July 27, 2009

I've got compost!

When I was last here two years ago, I found the garden in much the same state as it is now - overrun with grass borage and nettles - and spent a month clearing it up then too. The weeds and the grass and the clippings from everything I cut back more than filled the Council's garden waste wheelie bin, so I revived the compost heap at the bottom of the garden. The borage and other weeds went into the wheelie, and anything which didn't have seeds or tap roots attached went into the compost heap - or the "dump" as we used to call it when we were kids.

Two years later and, despite it not having been looked after at all, I have the most gorgeous rich crumbly compost. There are still some woody bits that haven't broken down properly, but they're easy enough to sieve out and once that's done it looks almost edible. Pity I can't take some home with me - but I don't think it would fit into RyanAir's 15kg allowance-

I'm gradually digging it out and transferring it into bags at the moment. Gradually because I'm terrified of overdoing things and putting my back out - when you're gardening on a balcony you don't get much practice at digging. So I intersperse short bursts of heavy work with the more gentile aspects of gardening - deadheading the roses and spraying the black spot, you know the sort of thing - in the hope that I can con my muscles into staying the course.

Before I leave it will be dug into the garden, but there's a way to go before I get to that stage. However, I need the compost heap empty again for the new stuff, which is already piling up. Hence the transfer into bags.

This year though, the composting is going to be done a bit more scientifically. Last time things were just chucked on the heap in desperation. This time I'm planning first - I shall be chopping and shredding, layering my greens and browns, sprinkling old compost on each layer to introduce the microorganisms, and watering in.

I can almost hear the borage licking its lips in anticipation ...

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Postcard from London - Not the Chelsea Flower Show

Last week the tenants who'd been in my house in London for the last two years left, and the agency sent me a report describing the house as needing repairs and the garden as being "overgrown". So I came back to have a look.

This is the rose garden.

Here's the rockery.

This is the path down the side of the back garden.

And here's the vegetable garden.

Grass, borage and nettles as far as the eye can see. It's even worse than it was two years ago when the last tenants left. Excuse the rant, but why on earth do people who can't be bothered even to cut the grass rent a house with a garden? Go live in a flat.

So I now have a month to get it back into shape. Watch this space ...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Skywatch Friday : UFO

On Tuesday I flew back to London. It was a sunny but windy day, and for the first part of the journey the clouds were stupendous ...

Banks of cloud in weird shapes, fluffy cumulus, and down below the mountains and the fields of Switzerland and the southern part of France.

As we got into the northern part of France though, the cloud changed to a uniform grey mass. And that was when I saw it ...
A little black blob flying parallel with us, just too much obscured by the cloud to decide what it was.

But it was an object, definitely flying, and definitely unidentifiable - by me anyway.

So I guess I can contribute a UFO to this week's Skywatch Friday - at least in the most literal sense of the term. But who knows - my last post was about intergalactic plant exchanges. Perhaps it wasn't quite as much a figment of my imagination as I thought ....

I don't know if anyone else from Skywatch is posting UFOs this week, but there are some great photos up. Don't miss the sunset photographed as it developed by Arija in Australia.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Blast from the Past Tuesday : Intergalactic Plant Exchange

Do you ever think back to all those posts you've written, especially those which were your favourites, and wonder how many people still read them? I do. And so for the next few weeks I'm going to be "reviving" an old post, from at least a year ago, every Tuesday. If you'd like to join in and do the same - and it doesn't have to be on Tuesday - just re-post something which is at least a year old, then leave a comment below with a link to your blog so that everyone can find you.

This week's Blast from the Past post comes from September 2006.

The plant in the photo is my wild asparagus. I found it growing in one of the containers a few years ago, and at first didn’t know what it was. So I stuck it in a pot to see what happened.

At first – absolutely nothing. For the first couple of years, the original four or five three-inch spikes just sat there looking boring and taking up space, so that last year I was on the point of throwing it out. And then it suddenly exploded and grew at a rate of knots. It’s still not the most interesting of plants, but I love the bright green of the leaves, and it’s very useful for providing foliage in vases of cut flowers.

Where did it come from? It must have just drifted in on the wind. Plants do seem to be fairly good at finding themselves new homes. Watching Star Trek : Deep Space Nine the other night I was amazed to see that Bromeliads are well established on the planet Bajor, at least 50 light years from Earth. In fact, one of the characters Vedek Bareil explained that he had studied to be a gardener, and that Bromeliads were his passion. Now how did they get there? I can take teletransportation and holodecks without blinking, but the idea that identical vegetation evolved on two such distant planets is stretching it too far. Seeds thrown into space after an asteroid impact and left to boldly go where no plant has gone before ? Unlikely. 50 light years is a long way without Warp Drive …

No, as any self-respecting Vulcan would tell you, such solutions are just illogical. I suspect that it’s the result of an Interplanetary Seed Sharing scheme, or something of the sort. If you were visiting Vulcan, Bajor or somewhere, wouldn’t you want to bring a few samples back? So next time someone knocks on your door and asks if they could take some seeds from your Schizanthus or cuttings from your Chrysanthemums, just look for the tell-tale signs. Pointy ears, odd ridges on the nose or forehead, attractive blotchy patterning around the hairline – you could be taking part in an Inter-Galactic Plant Exchange.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Growing cotton on the balcony

On January 2nd this year I fought my way through a snowstorm to get to a garden centre. It was my last day in Germany and I wanted to pick up some packets of seeds to bring home. There were two customers there that day - me and someone buying a potted plant as a late Christmas present. But at least she'd arrived in a car.

The staff looked at me strangely - they clearly couldn't understand why this mad foreign woman had picked that particular day to buy a year's worth of seeds. But I got the things I wanted, some of which I knew I'd be unlikely to find easily in Italy. And more.

Amongst the things I found was a packet of cotton seeds (top left in the photo).

I bought it just for fun. The packet said it was easy to grow as a houseplant, so why not? It would make a change from the usual marigolds. The packet instructions said that it could be started off in the house all year round, so I got going immediately.

Well, a few seeds did germinate - but before long they'd toppled over and died. I think I may have overwatered - it's a plant which expects drought conditions. So I sort of forgot about it. Until a couple of weeks ago when I was planting biennials and came across the remaining seeds. The outside temperatures were well above the minimum by now, so why not stick it in and see?

And yes - for those of you who were trying to guess the mystery seedling of a couple of posts ago, I'm now growing cotton on the balcony. And by pure chance, the other day I found out that Milan's climate is classified as the same as those of the cotton producing states of the US - humid subtropical. I'm only surprised that it's not grown here commercially.

It germinated almost instantly, is growing rapidly, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there's enough time for it to do something before the colder weather arrives. The flowers are supposed to arrive after 35-45 days. They only last a few days, but flowering will go on for a month. That should take us from the end of August - still hot and sunny - till the end of September - getting cooler . It takes another month for the cotton bolls to mature - but I suspect it will be too late. By mid-October they'll need to be inside, and the plants are 3-4ft tall - I'm not sure I have room for an entire plantation in the flat.

We'll see. I could certainly bring one in. But if it goes wrong I shall definitely try again next year, starting earlier. If you'd like to try too, keep in mind the following :

1. The seeds need a temperature of 16°C/60°F to germinate and then at least 21°C/70°F to grow successfully. Start them off in March/April, in the house or greenhouse as necessary, sowing 2/3 seeds per 9" pot. Thin out any weaklings as they come through. The soil should be moist at first, but afterwards keep them fairly dry.

2. As they start to grow, transfer each plant to a 30cm pot and start watering. Again they should be slightly moist but never waterlogged. Feed weekly with a high potash fertiliser - they need high nitrogen and potassium. A liquid tomato food will do fine. If they've been started inside, they'll need hardening off gradually before being left out, and like all tall plants will need to be staked.

3. The plants are prone to red spider mite, so mist them frequently as a preventative measure.

4. Stop watering about 16 weeks after planting and let the plants dry up and the bolls finish forming. Pick them when they split open, showing the fluffy cotton,and you'll have your seeds for next year - but be careful of the prickles. If the bolls are exposed to rain they may rot, so pick them immediately and let them dry and open indoors.


Many thanks to Old Shoe Woman for making the photos of the cotton flower and boll available under Creative Commons Licence on flickr.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday : Bullrushes

The other week I went for a walk in a large country park on the edge of Milan ....

There was a pond surrounded by bullrushes.

GBBD : July Wilt

July wilt. You won't find it listed under pests and diseases in your gardening books, but it's one of the worst threats to the garden I know. July comes, the temperature rises over 35°C (95°C), the humidity soars, and the plants wilt. And so does the gardener.

The good times are over. May and June, when everything was green and bursting into bloom, seem far away. Some things resist - these little pelargoniums are doing well - this is the second time they've flowered, and so are several of the surfinias and petunias - though I've lost a lot of others.

But they're the exceptions. All over the balcony plants have succumbed to the heat, to pests or to fungus diseases, leaving tell-tale brown patches in the containers which have to be filled with tougher plants, that resist better. But who has the energy to get to the garden center and buy them? I take advantage of the cool half hour after a late afternoon storm to run out and pick up a few periwinkles - a Godsend at this time of the year. They come into bloom just as everything else is dying, love the heat, and never seem to be touched by any sort of pest or disease. Regularly in July I find myself saying - To hell with it. Next year, I'm just growing periwinkles.

And for the small gaps there are always baby spider plants to be detached from their "mothers" and tucked into the pots. Not desperately impressive maybe, but better than brown spaces.

Not everything hates the heat of course. The plumbago thrives in it. I had disappointing results with my plumbago last year because I'd moved it to a place where it didn't get enough sun, and hadn't bothered to prune. This spring I cut it right back and moved it back to the balcony railing, where it had always been happy before. And once again, it's been full of blooms - they've occasionally been spoilt by the thunderstorms, but there have been so many that within a couple of days it's bounced straight back.

There's not much else to show for this month's Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, but one container has surprised me.

My calendula have done well this year and are full of buds. They usually submit to mildew fairly early on, but this year have been fine. I miscalculated a bit with the arrangement - I thought the marigolds would be taller and the calendula shorter - perhaps I should have pinched them out. And don't ask me how that sunflower got in the back there. I've left him because at least he matches the colour scheme ...

I found out today that Milan is classed as having a humid subtropical climate - that's the same as the south-eastern states of the US - Alabama, Mississippi and so on. Which in one way is a lucky coincidence, because it means that my new balcony experiment might not be so crazy after all. I'm growing a plant which I've not seen in Italy before, but which would be right at home in Alabama. It germinated about a fortnight ago and is growing fast. Any guesses?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Water Lilies

Claude Monet is perhaps the best known of the impressionist painters. But he was also a gardener, and created one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe, at Giverny in Normandy. And for thirty five years the flowers from the Giverny garden were crucial to his art.

I did my first degree in Cardiff, still my favourite ever city. The Uni. is in the town centre, and just down the road is the National Museum of Wales, where I spent I don't know how many lunchtimes (admission was then, and is still now, free). Don't ask me what the museum contains in general - I can't remember. I always headed straight for the art section - either for the Pre-Raphaelite paintings or, much more frequently, to see the Monet water lily collection. Where I would sit, maybe just for ten minutes, and look.

Monet produced 250 paintings of water lilies, so it's not surprising that many important galleries have a collection. But obviously, France has a prior claim. The painting below is from Les Orangeries in Paris. They built two oval rooms specially because that is how Monet wanted the paintings to be exhibited.

But since leaving Cardiff, I don't think I've seen one of Monet's paintings - until this summer when an exhibition opened at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. An exhibition which was doubly attractive because it linked Monet's work to the work of various Japanese artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige.

I have to say that, in comparison to what I'd seen in Wales, the Monet paintings in the Milan exhibition were a disappointment. There were two that I enjoyed, but some of the others left me cold. However, the exhibition was well worth a visit for other reasons.

It started at the entrance, where they had laid out a minature "garden" representing both the lake in the garden created by Monet at Giverny, where he painted the waterlilies, and the Japanese influence on his work. Then the building. Palazzo Reale is a 14th century building in the centre of Milan, now used for art exhibitions. But its sweeping staircases and high vaulted ceilings are as much worth a visit as the paintings it houses.

The Monet paintings, as I said were a disappointment. The paintings were small - part of Monet's appeal is the size of some of his work - and with the exception of two, didn't particularly attract me. But the interlacing of the Japanese prints and the information given on the influences on his work were fascinating, and the exhibition was well worth visiting just for that.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) : The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Monet never went to Japan, but collected Japanese prints assiduously and had a collection of 231 of them at Giverny. His own paintings often reflect the structure of the prints - notice for instance the similarity in the lines in this Hokusai painting of Mount Fuji and Monet's haystack series. But most of all they influenced him in their treatment of the natural world - the landscapes, rain, snow, trees and plants so often featured in the prints.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) : Maple Trees at Mama ...

Because, although Monet's paintings include representations of people and towns (including some wonderful paintings of London and Venice), his paintings above all feature natural scenes - many from the Giverny garden.

In the final years of his life Monet said "Gardening was something I learnt to do in my youth, when I was unhappy. Perhaps I owe it to flowers that I became a painter."

Monet bought the house in 1890. The Giverny garden is divided into two areas : the flower garden near the house; and the water garden, where Monet painted his waterlilies and built a Japanese style bridge (though painted green rather than the traditional red of his beloved prints). A third area, a short distance away, was turned into a vegetable garden and orchard. For the first ten years Monet worked on and painted the flower garden, and then turned his attention to the boggy area behind it, across the railway line. To create the water garden he had to get permission from the local council to divert the course of a river - something initially strongly opposed by the local people who feared that the painter's "strange plants" would poison the water.

Monet worked on his water lily paintings up to 1925, a year before his death. He was 86.

Why did the impressionists paint as they did? I guessed long before I saw any official confirmation. It came to me one day in the early 70s as I was sitting on top of a 54 bus, crossing Blackheath in London. I am extremely myopic and slightly astigmatic, and for some reason which I don't now remember, that day I couldn't put my contact lenses in nor use my glasses. As I looked out of the window onto the heath, the world suddenly turned into an impressionist painting. At the time, I had no idea that the impressionists had sight problems, but yes - Cezanne and Renoir were myopic, Degas was gradually losing his sight as he painted, and both Monet and Mary Cassatt, the most famous female impressionist painter, suffered from cataracts which affected their perception of colour. And most tellingly for me, it is also said that Monet was astigmatic. It's said that he was once fitted for a pair of glasses to right his vision, but refused to wear them saying indignantly "If the world really looks like that I will paint no more!" I sympathise. I too am fond of my fuzzy sight. Not to the extent of refusing to wear lenses during the day - but oh how nice it is when I take them out at night and the world becomes a gentle, unfocused blur.

Now that I've seen the exhibition, Giverny has risen to the top of my wish list of gardens to visit. But when I go, I'm not putting my lenses in. I shall wear my glasses. And very,very often as I walk around, I shall take them off.


Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available under Creative Commons Licence on Flickr. All others are my own :

alex4981 : Water lilies in the Orangerie
peterjr1961 : Hiroshige print
freakland : Hokusai print
Greg_e : Giverny photos

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Go on - you know you do it too ...

The seven deadly sins of gardening. And I confess, I confess - I'm guilty of every single one. But go on - hand on heart can you really say you don't do any of them?

1. Thou shalt not pull the seed pods of the heads of newly sprouted seedlings. Oh, but they look so trapped. Surely they'll never get them off without help. Yes, I know that last time both the seed leaves came off with it. And the time before, and the time before that. But I was only trying to help. Surely, this time if I'm gentle ...

2. Thou shalt not dig up your bulbs and tubers to see if they're doing anything yet. But they've been in there so long and there's no sign of anything. I won't disturb them, promise. Yes, all right, I did rip the roots off that Jerusalem artichoke last time, but this time I'll go really, really carefully...

3. Thou shalt not forget to go back and empty the surplus water out of the saucers under the containers. Yes I admit it - there's no excuse for this one. I just got distracted. OK, OK - I just got distracted again. But it might be all right this time. I mean it's a big pot and it will only be the bottom couple of inches which are soggy. Maybe the roots haven't got down that far yet...

4. Thou shalt not forget to label your seed pots - not only with names, but above all with colours. Now, I resent that. You know that I labelled every single pot in the last batch. What do you mean, going back half an hour later and labelling things Mystery and ???? doesn't count? And as for colours - well, maybe I like that bright pink zinnia in the middle of the marigolds...

5. Thou shalt not throw in another couple of handfuls of fertiliser just to "finish off the box". What? The Four O'Clocks you mean? But look how healthy they are. Look at that foliage. Have you ever seen them come up so lush and green? They're a delight to see. Oh .. right -no, I suppose they're aren't many flowers this year ...

6. Thou shalt not try and grow plants which you know perfectly well won't survive in your garden.
You're not going to let me forget those hostas are you? Oh - it was the Himalayan geranium you were thinking of. Well, you never know - we might have had a cool summer that year...

7. Thou shalt not - but wait a moment, it can't just be me. Go on, you know you do it too. So confess. What's your seventh "deadly gardening sin" ?

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