Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blast from the Past Tuesday : Tree in a Cage

This post, in the Blast from the Past series, comes from May 2008. It was the third of a series of posts about a visit to Gardaland, a large theme park in the north of Italy.

In the middle of Gardaland, there's a nine foot tree in a cage. One of the rides perhaps? Something like the Ents from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter's Whomping Willow? Both good candidates for a theme park attraction I would have thought. But no, it's a real tree and it's not violent - it's a Wollemi Pine.

The Wollemi Pine is, in the wild, one of the rarest trees in the world. Only about a hundred trees remain (some sources say less), in a secret location in the Wollemi National Park, in Queensland Australia. Why so secret? For the same reason that this one was in a cage - to protect them from people. Who might inadvertently introduce disease, start fires and of course, rip off branches. Well, of course, if it's rare you've got to have a souvenir, haven't you?

It's also one of the oldest living plants. Fossil records date back 200 million years, and at the time the earth was covered by dense rain forest, it was found all over the world. But it was thought to have become extinct together with the dinosaurs.

When I saw the tree, my first thought was that it looked like a bright green Monkey Puzzle tree - it has the same long needles. And in fact, it's from the same family Araucariaceae (wow, I spelt that right first time.)

Discovered by chance in 1994 by one of the Wollemi Park rangers, David Noble (it has been given the official name of Wollemia nobilis), the tree is now the focus of a conservation attempt. While the original trees are being protected, they're now quite widely propagated and you can see them in various botanical gardens around the world. In Kew Gardens in London, for instance. And even in theme parks.

You can also get one for the garden if you want. You'll need a bit of space, as they grow to over a hundred feet, but one site also pushes them as good container plants, claiming that they "can be maintained in a pot almost indefinitely". Perhaps I'll get one for the balcony. Though as they were only discovered in 1994 and have only been commercially available for a couple of years, I'd like to know how they know.

In the wild they grow in acid soil, and in humid rainforest conditions. However, they are apparently hardy, surviving at a range of -5° to 45°C (that's 23°-113°F). If you're in USDA zones 7-11, you should be fine.

There's plenty on the web about them if you want to know more. Just Google Wollemi Pine. One of the most interesting sites has the tapescript of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary on the trees, called A Green Dinosaur. It's well worth a look. Or click here for a list of botanical gardens where they can be seen, and for distributors in various countries. The site for North America is here.

It's a shame to let old posts go to waste. If you'd like to join in with Blast from the Past Tuesday (or Sunday or Monday, whenever you like), just "revive" one of your favourite old posts from at least a year ago and leave a comment below with a link to your blog so that people can find it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Synchronised leaf stripping

I found these caterpillars in the garden yesterday - they're quite clearly in training for the next Olympics, which are being held a couple of miles from here. The synchronised leaf stripping event. Not bad - though the ones on the bottom need to get their tails up a bit more if they're to be in with a chance. I could wish they'd waited a bit longer to move into the area though - my garden is not the Olympic Village and they're polishing off what little is left of my poor roses. Oh well, sport has to be encouraged amongst the young, I suppose ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

UFOs in the Garden

No, we haven't been invaded by aliens. UFOs - unidentified flowering objects. Scattered around the garden are a number of plants that I can't identify, one of which has been bugging me for years.

It's a pretty little flower which has grown on our rockery for at least thirty years. It's a hardy perennial which creeps along at ground level, is drought tolerant, grows happily in minimum soil in the cracks between the rocks, and in June/July puts out loads of daisy-like flowers from the rosettes of leaves. It also seeds easily - a couple of years ago I took some of the seeds home to grow on the balcony. I posted about it then in fact, but with only the seedling to go by, no-one managed to identify it. It did fine until the heat struck and then couldn't take it.

But what is it? I've not been able to find it anywhere on the net or in gardening books. Any ideas? I'd love to resolve the mystery.

The garden is full of bulbs. Every time I turn over a forkful of soil it brings up loads of them. Many are just bulblets which are not yet ready for flowering, but I'm saving them all and dividing them into types. Most will go straight back into the garden when I've finished weeding the beds, but some will come back to Milan with me so that I can find out what they are.

One type is already sprouting. A lot of them were in the middle of the lawn. I have no idea how they got there or what they are, but I've dug them up and replanted them all together in the bed which I yanked all the borage out of the other day, in front of the daffodil bulbs. I hope they'll go well together.

Another mystery plant growing in the lawn is undoubtedly a weed, but one I've not come across before. I dug it up thinking I'd find more bulbs, but no - there's an ominous looking taproot. For the moment I'm going to have to ignore it. When the lawn is mowed it hardly notices, as it just looks like a thick leaved grass, but it grows at a rate of knots in comparison to the grass and soon becomes evident if you don't go round it with the lawnmower frequently. It's probably something I should be dealing with, but I'm afraid I don't have time ...

And then there's this little plant which is almost as invasive as the borage which I talked about a couple of posts ago. It's everywhere, including in the lawn, despite the fact that I thought I'd got rid of it last time I was here. I don't actually mind it in the flower beds. Until I've got anything else to put there, it at least provides ground cover, and it's better than grass or borage. But what is it? It has pretty, heart shaped leaves, a thickish root and produces purplish seed pods. I took a few of them back to Milan two years ago, but couldn't get them to germinate. Ironic, as they clearly self seed like crazy here. I've never seen it in flower - if there are flowers of any note they must bloom at a time of year when I'm never here.

So - if you have any ideas about any of them, please let me know so I can take them off the UFO list. I'm sure that really they all have a rational explanation...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blast from the past Tuesday : The Only Garden Tool You'll Ever Need ...

This week's Blast from the Past is from April 2008 and is in memory of our little Hamster Helper Benji, who sadly died before the year was out.

What's your favourite garden tool? Carol has her hoes and Hannah was recently waxing lyrical about a new lawnmower, but neither of those would be much use on a balcony. The garden tool I wouldn't be without is my Hamster Helper.

Whatever the job, your Hamster Helper will be up to it. Want to thin out some seedlings? Switch Hamster Helper to the "eat" function.

Need to pot up some new plants? Throw away that trowel! With Hamster Helper on "dig", the containers are ready in no time.

And if you have shrubs to prune, you'll never again have the problem of those secateurs letting you down at the last moment. Just place your Hamster Helper on "gnaw" and watch the twigs fall.

Small enough to slip into your pocket as you work in the garden, Hamster Helper is cheap, clean and easy to run. Powered largely by sunflower seeds, she'll run for hours with no effect at all on your electricity bills.

Hamster helper comes in two versions. Shown here is the smaller dwarf variety, which comes in a variety of colours and is ideal on the balcony. For the extra power needed for garden use, you may prefer the larger, golden variety.

Don't delay - check out Hamster Helper at your local pet shop today!

PS. Thanks to Benji for posing for the photos, and for not biting me once while we faffed about with the camera. David Attenborough, eat your heart out...

Don't let your old posts get lost! If you'd like to join in with Blast from the Past Tuesday (or Thursday or Friday, whenever you like), just "revive" one of your favourite old posts from at least a year ago and leave a comment below with a link to your blog so that people can find it.

Yergh - Borage

Never, never plant borage in your garden unless you can keep it in a container and be there to cut off all the flowers before they go to seed. Yes, I know I said that two years ago. But it's still there. Despite digging - I thought - every single root out of the garden when I was last here, it's back as if nothing had ever happened. It's in the flowerbeds, it's in the lawn, it's in the cracks in the paths ... Borage must be the most invasive plant in existence.

Needless to say, I didn't know that when I planted it about fiften years ago. It seemed such a pretty plant, with its broad green leaves and stems of blue, starry flowers. but since then it's been a constant battle which I know I'm not going to win until I can actually stay here for a year and deal with each plant one by one, and each seedling as it germinates, taking action at the first sign of sprouting leaves.

The problem is that digging doesn't help unless you can be sure of getting every single bit of the root. And it's almost impossible. Borage has huge taproots which will grow back if you leave even a bit in the soil. So I've tried another strategy this year. Despite the fact that I generally avoid chemicals, I sprayed with a systemic weedkiller to try and kill the plant before starting to dig.

That has meant a nail biting wait - and all the heavy work in the last weeks of the holiday(should that be "holiday"??). The weedkiller had a fairly evident effect on the leaves almost immediately - but I had to wait to give it time to work on the roots. And in the meantime I started to see the plants I'd missed - healthy green new leaves sprouting amidst the curled brown ones. So I had to go round those with more spray - and wait again. And then do a third round for the ones I'd missed both times.

I think I've now got it all, and I'm starting the digging. I tackled a small bed in the back garden first - I thought if I could get a few of my daffodil bulbs in, it might spur me on a bit to a job I'm really not looking forward to. It's heavy work and I'm going to bed each night with pains in muscles I didn't know I had. There were relatively few plants in the small bed - but some of the roots were monsters, and they still filled an entire bucket.

Did I get them all? I doubt it, but I'm just hoping that the weedkiller had had time to get down to the bits I missed. The bulbs went in and I'm now fighting the squirrel who keeps digging them up again. He doesn't seem to want to eat them, and in a comment on another post Daffodil Planter said they were poisonous. So I suspect he's just taking advantage of the soft earth to bury his acorns and hoicking my bulbs out of the way in the process. Anyone know any good squirrel repellent?

Back to the plot. The disadvantage of waiting so long is that I'm not going to be here when the seeds germinate in the nice earth I've prepared for them. Last time, by digging early I manage to hoe the new seedlings before I left. This year, though I may have dealt with the roots more effectively, I may even have created a worse problem. Ah well - come back in two years time. There will undoubtedly be a post in August 2011 which starts Never, never plant borage in your garden ....

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hydrangea Dilemma

Wow, can we grow hydrangeas. They are one of the few things which continue to thrive in the garden despite the neglect. They're all pink mopheads, and I've noticed that these have been getting a bad press around gardening blogs recently. But I love them.

Yes it's true that they can start to look tatty when the colours start to fade, and the pink becomes a dirty cream colour, like the ones below. And if, like mine, the dead growth hasn't been cut away for two years, they look even tattier, with dry brown heads everywhere. But I love them just for those weeks when they are an enormous mass of pink flowers ...

They're also nice used as cut flowers for the house - they'll last for a week or so in water ...

We have three in the garden, two at the back and one at the front. They must have been there for at least thirty years by now. When Dad was alive he would turn them blue - not difficult here as we have a naturally acidic soil - but they've long reverted.

Over the past week I've been tidying them up a bit. I've got rid of the blackberry bramble that was growing all over the one below, and cut away the dead heads and stems. With the result that they now look a bit battered. But they'll bounce back.

I've also taken cuttings. I put them into a propagator the first day I was here, and they've now rooted. One at least will go home with me to the balcony, but I'm not sure what to do with the others. The idea was to plant them in the beds which are currently being taken over by grass and borage, hoping that they'll survive the winter (please, please let it be mild) despite the fact that they'll not have had long to establish themselves. Perhaps if I mulch well ...

In particular I thought of establishing a hydrangea hedge in the bed that separates my garden from my neighbours, plus a couple out back. The dilemma is : what's better, a bare garden full of weeds or one that seems overrun by hydrangeas?

Planting a lot of other stuff is out of the question. The house is in such a state that it's draining the budget, and anyway there's just no point spending money on a garden which, quite likely, no-one is going to look at again till I come back. I have picked up a couple of special offers at our local DIY centre - 200 mixed daffodil bulbs for £10 and four bush roses for the same price. OK, it's not the ideal time for planting either - though I'm just within the limits for the daffs - but it's the only time I have.

So I suspect one of these days in the years to come you'll be reading a post which reads something like damn-hydrangeas-why-ever-did-I-plant so-many. Oh well...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Blast from the Past Tuesday : Five Things I Hate about Container Gardening Books

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

I have two types of gardening books on my bookshelves : the first are about gardening, the second are about container gardening.

The container gardening books have a different emphasis from the others. They're not so much about how to grow things, as what plants to combine to produce the most attractive containers. And at times they drive me mad. Here's why ...

1. The assumption that container gardening means patio gardening, or at least that you have a large terrace. If you can use enormous containers, raised beds and so on, its a whole different ball game from balcony gardening, and much of what you need to know is no different from gardening with a garden. The book often looks great, but relegates small container gardening to hardly more than a chapter. Container gardening should cover both possibilities - so give us balcony gardeners at least 50% of the space please.

2. The perfect pictures. Five different types of plant in the same container, all in flower and at their best, and all exactly complementary heights and lengths at exactly the same time. Yeah, yeah. Buy them from the garden centre, give them a week to settle and they'll be like that - for another week. But then one will shoot up, another will get attacked by pests, and a third will stop flowering. And the container will spend the rest of the summer looking tatty.

3. The one-sided pictures. The most difficult thing about balcony gardening is that all the light comes from one direction. So the plants lean towards it, away from the house, and the container ends up lop-sided with the plants trailing over the balcony railings away from you. All you get to see from your living room are the backs of flowers and leaves leaning away. And tall plants end up looking like the leaning tower of Pisa. Smaller containers can be turned regularly, but that doesn't help with the large fixed ones. Look at the one in the photo for example - super. But what's it like from the other side?

4. The perfect colour schemes, achieved only by going out to buy an exact variety of a plant. Phyllitis scolopendrium "Cristatum" - whaaat ? Here I'd be lucky if I could get the plant, let alone a specific variety. I have sometimes thought of going to our local garden centre with a list and saying "I'm looking for these." I suspect the reply would be the Italian equivalent of "What about some nice pelargoniums, luv?"

OK, OK - I'm just envious because my containers never look as good as the ones in the books. But that doesn't stop me yanking them out every spring, poring over the pictures and trying again. And buying more. Maybe this year ...

Don't let your old posts get lost! If you'd like to join in with Blast from the Past Tuesday (or Saturday or Sunday, whenever you like), just "revive" one of your favourite old posts from at least a year ago, with a brief explanation of when it's from and that you're "reviving" it for BFTP Tuesday, and leave a comment below with a link to your blog so that people can find it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


My garden in London backs on to a park which is maintained as a wildlife sanctuary, and much of the wildlife finds its way across the back fence into the garden - especially when it knows that there's food on offer. One of the most frequent visitors is a little grey squirrel.

Grey squirrels aren't native to Britain. They were first introduced in 1876, from America. But they bred rapidly and soon took over from the native red squirrels, once widespread. There are now estimated to be about 2.5 million greys as opposed to only 120,00 - 160,000 reds, which are mostly found in the coniferous forests of Scotland.

Why has the red squirrel declined so dramatically in numbers? Destruction of the woodlands which are the red squirrel's natural habitat is one reason. The grey squirrel has a number of advantages when competing for food. It can eat acorns, which the red squirrel can't, and which are often now the main food source in the parks and woodlands where the greys are found (I just wish they'd remember where they bury them - you can't imagine how many sapling oaks I pull out of my garden each time I'm here.) In addition, where hazel nuts (a principal food source for the reds) are growing, the greys have the advantage of being able to eat them when they are still unripe - which the reds can't. The greys therefore get there first, leaving fewer for the reds.

But one of the main reasons for the drop in numbers seems to have been a virus called the parapox virus. The greys are unaffected by it, but evidence suggests that they can and do carry and spread it. And for the reds, it's deadly.

It's estimated that red squirrels will disappear from and area within 15 years of the introduction of the greys and they are now a protected species, with projects to reintroduce them to their natural habitats being carried out in various places. One highly successful case was in Anglesey in North Wales, where culling the greys resulted in the re-establishment of a thriving population of reds.

The greys, on the other hand, are seen as vermin and can be legally killed. Local DIY shops and gardening centres here are full of squirrel traps. You do need the permission of the landowner to set them however, so if any of my future tenants are reading this - you don't have it. If there is any control to be done, I feel it should be done in a planned way by the authorities, not by individuals. And in fact research is apparently being done to find an oral contraceptive which can be left where the greys will eat it but not other animals. Squirrels on the pill - the mind boggles. But a far more acceptable solution to my mind than people taking the problem into their own hands.

I like the squirrels though and wouldn't want to lose them from my garden. Yes, they can be a nuisance. They raid the bird feeders and the fruit trees, dig holes in the garden to bury their nuts and acorns, and dig up and eat the flower bulbs. (Yikes, I bought 200 daffodil bulbs to plant in the garden the other day - that should keep ours going for a couple of weeks.) And more seriously, they will eat birds eggs and baby birds. But they're fun to watch and brighten up the garden considerably. And they provide interest for our neighbours' cat, who is convinced that one of these days he'll be quick enough to catch one. Not a hope in hell. They just leap across the garden, whizz up a tree and sit at laugh at him. I swear I saw one throwing a nut down at him the other day ...


National Geographic News
UK Biodiversity Action Plan
London Evening Standard
The Friends of the Anglesey Red Squirrels

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Skywatch Friday - London Clouds

The clouds in London fascinate me. We just don't have anything like them in Milan. Doesn't this look as if it should come out of a film like Independence Day? They seem so close and so menacing that you feel they must be hiding something ...
As always there are loads of other great sky photos over at the Skywatch Friday site. My favourite this week? Living on the Edge, from Canada.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Secret Gardens

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the Mulberry tree in Charlton Park, reputedly the oldest in Britain. I wonder how many people know that behind what used to be the old stable block of Charlton House, the large Jacobean manor house that stands at the front of the park, there is a series of walled gardens.

They're hidden away, behind trees and bushes, and you could easily never find them even if you walked through the main part of the park every day. I discovered them as a child - my grandparents used to take me there, and at the time one was a rose garden (which my grandmother loved) and another had a long rectangular goldfish pond with waterlilies, where I would watch the fish for what then seemed like hours (probably about five minutes!)

The rose garden and goldfish pond are long gone, and there are five gardens not two. In addition to the two large rectangular ones which I remember, there are also three smaller, square gardens. I don't think many people go there. There were a couple of elderly people sitting quietly in the sunshine, but they were almost deserted.

I could have stayed in the gardens all morning. Each one seemed more peaceful than the next.

They are designed slightly differently one from the other. Some are quite formal, with neatly cut grass and shrubs. Others have huge swathes of large, dramatic looking plants and grasses. One has been designed as a butterfly garden. and in one, tucked in amongst the other plants, someone was growing their courgettes.

I loved this central bed with its anvil-like central sculpture and these wonderful tall lilac flower spikes. Can anyone identify them?

But my favourite was one of the smaller gardens which had this intriguing little gateway. I could have sat quietly in there for hours - except that you couldn't help but want to know what was on the other side ....

... the Amnesty International Peace Garden.

And that just about summed it up really. The gardens were a little oasis of peace and tranquillity where you could forget you were in the middle of London, forget you had work to to, and forget you had problems to solve. I'm glad I found them.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Blast from the Past Tuesday : A Day in the (Gardening) Life of ...

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

7.30 : I wake up and the house is still quiet. Saturday. I slide out of bed, go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and open the shutters. The outside thermometer says 18°C, so it’s just warm enough still to sit out on the balcony and have breakfast. Make the most of it – it won’t last long now that October has arrived. The balcony’s looking a mess – a general clear-up is necessary.
10.00 : Things are starting to improve. I’ve got rid of a few annuals which were looking tatty, and re-organised the containers so that the plants which are still blooming are near the windows. I don’t think the zinnias are ever going to stop. They’ve been going for over three months now, and are still showing buds.
10.30 : Have spent the last half hour dead-heading and seed collecting. The mirabilis jalapa is still flowering, but is now covered with seeds. I’ve already collected enough to start a nursery, but I can always give them away. Every so often I drop one and it falls off the balcony onto the path below where the little kids play. They’re poisonous, so I go down and spend ten minutes hunting for them just in case.
11.00 : Get out my gardening books and magazines to find out what I need to be doing this month. Planting out the biennials and generally preparing for winter it seems. I’m out of compost and am going to need some for the re-potting I want to do later. Time for a quick walk to the garden centre. I’m lucky – garden centres in Milan are few and far between but ours is only two minutes away. Otherwise it’s a trip out of town, or wait and see what they’ve got at the weekly street market. Resist heroically the temptation to buy more plants.
11.40 : Two bleary teenage eyes peer round the door onto the balcony inquiring if we’re having lunch soon or if it’s worth having breakfast. Seeing me up to my elbows in stable manure, he opts for cornflakes.
2.30 : Time for the weekend shopping. As we go in, a stand of plants catches my eye - cyclamen at ridiculously reduced prices. Look a bit closer and see why – they’re half dead. But there are three at the back that look all right. What the hell. I’ve got some coming on, but I’m not convinced they’ll bloom this winter. And mine are all red or white – these are violet. Add them to the trolley.
4.00 : Back home. Decide to sit down and blog for a while. While I’m doing it, my son wanders into the study to tell me about a video on organic produce called
Grocery Store Wars which he saw at school. Says it’s funny. We watch it together and it is.
6.00 : It’s been a few days since I watered and today has been sunny, so I go out to do it. Remember that I’ve run out of liquid fertiliser. It can wait. Nearly time to stop, anyway. Just time to pot the cyclamen before dinner …

If you'd like to join in with Blast from the Past Tuesday (or Wednesday, or Thursday or whenever you like) just "revive" an old post from at least a year ago which you think people might like to see again, with a brief explanation of when it's from and that you're "reviving" it for BFTP Tuesday, and leave a comment below with a link to your blog so that people can find you.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The oldest Mulberry tree in England?

Last week, Jools of My English Country Garden wrote a post about her Mulberry tree, and it reminded me that not far from here we have what is reputed to be the oldest Mulberry tree in Britain.

The thing I love about this area is how many large parks, heaths and woods there are close by - despite being in London we are literally surrounded by green areas. One of these, and the one which is home to the Mulberry tree, is Charlton Park.

The focal point of Charlton Park is Charlton House, a large Jacobean mansion built between 1607 and 1612 for Sir Adam Newton, the tutor of the eldest son of James I. (The boy died, leaving the throne to his younger brother Charles I). Up until the 1920s the house continued to be a private residence, but was then acquired by the local council to be turned into a community centre, while the land of the estate became three parks.

The Mulberry tree at the side of Charlton House dates back to 1608 and was planted on James I's orders. The King was keen that England should cash in on the silk industry, which was by then booming in other European countries such as Italy. The caterpillars which produce the silk feed on mulberry leaves and James therefore imported 10,000 saplings from Virginia, and "encouraged" his courtiers to plant them on their estates. Unfortunately for James, he'd not done his horticultural homework quite well enough - silkworms feed on the leaves of the White Mulberry (Morus alba) of China , and not the Black Mulberries (Morus nigra) of Virginia. Whoops.

So England ended up with 10,000 Mulberry trees - but sadly, no silk industry. One of the greatest gardening mistakes of all time?

And they are incredibly long lived. The Charlton House Mulberry is by no means the only tree surviving from that period. In fact, there is even one in Suffolk which claims to be older - but locally we tend to ignore that one. Undoubtedly an impostor.

The tree is still producing large quantities of fruit, and I don't think there are many people who walk past it in August without tasting. I remember that when I was a child, we'd always make a detour on our way to the local library, which is inside Charlton House, in order to pick whatever berries we could reach.

And if you want to know what it tastes like, you don't have to come to Charlton. There's a cultivar called Charlton House which you can get for your own garden... I wonder if I could grow one on the balcony?

On the other side of the house from the Mulberry tree, and behind what used to be the stable block, are a series of walled gardens, each leading on to the next. What could there be beyond that door, I wonder? But it's late. They, I'm afraid, are going to have to wait for another post.

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