Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quite possibly the ugliest plant I've ever seen...

I mentioned a few posts back that weeds aren't a particular problem when you balcony garden, but that things do sometimes float in on the wind and seed themselves in the containers. And sometimes they can be quite interesting plants - so when I saw this one sprouting at the beginning of the summer, I popped it into a pot to see what would develop.

What is it? No idea - some sort of succulent it seems. I was sure I'd never seen it before - it's not something I've noticed growing wild, but nor is it anything I've ever seen in a garden.

Well - not till a few days ago that is, when I was walking through the garden at the front of the house and found this, crawling its way up a lamp post ....

Quite possibly the ugliest plant I've ever seen.

How did it get there? That's not a plant that's been deliberated over in a condominium assembly for at least three hours and until blood has been spilled (mandatory for any decisions regarding the condominium). Someone has had the thing growing on their balcony and, in desperation, crept into the garden at dead of night and stuck it up the lamp post. Look how awkward it looks - that, I'm sure, is no natural climber.

To me, it looks as if it should be snaking its way insidiously across the ground. Did someone actually go out and buy it (worthy of a post on Great Gardening Mistakes of the Century) and thus infect my balcony, or did it float in on the wind to them too? I can imagine hundreds of the things spreading through the garden, choking the shrubs and the trees, and then reaching unstoppably for the buildings. We'll all wake up one morning murdered in our beds, tendrils sliding through the shutters and wound mercilessly around our throats.

Because I'm sure it's conscious and I don't think it's from this planet. Who said that intelligent life must be animal? This is something out of The Day of the Triffids or The War of the Worlds. It's here to take over, to wipe us out ...

And I'm growing one. No question that it's the same. Compare the close-up below with the photo of my little one in its pot. Should I kill mine now, bringing upon myself the certain wrath of its kin, or should I go on nurturing it, in the hope that when the time comes I'll be spared and kept on as some sort of servant? They'll need someone to bring the fertiliser, for heaven's sake.

The monster in the garden is already starting to evolve. Did the person who planted it there think he was rendering it harmless by tying it to a stake? He's only increased its rage, and sooner or later we're all going to pay. Look at those little bubble things on the tips of the "teeth" on the leaves. Spores which spread silently on the wind ...

Alert your Neighbourhood Watch. Write to your Congressperson. Notify NASA. But don't ever say I didn't warn you...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A sorry sight ...

I've always had pelargoniums on the balcony. Common as muck they may be, but in full bloom they're glorious. And with a bit of protection they will not only over-winter, and but also sometimes keep on flowering . If you were reading this blog a few years ago, you'll know that I had one container of salmon-pink zonal pelargoniums that went on for two and half years - in all that time, even in January when it was wrapped up in fleece, there wasn't a moment when it wasn't in bloom.

But each year it got progressively more difficult to keep them alive through the summer. And last year I lost the lot.

So this year I replaced them all. Zonals, ivy-leafed, regals .... Here they are in May this year...

And I've lost the lot again.

Why? Again if you've been reading regularly for a few years, you'll guess. It's this ...

Cacyreus Marshalli, or the Geranium Bronze Butterfly. It's always been a problem, but for the last couple of years it's been impossible to keep the plants alive.

A quick recap for those of you who aren't familiar with it. Native to S.Africa (as are pelargoniums), it was introduced to S. Europe about twenty years ago and has been spreading like wildfire ever since. It's been in Italy since 1996, and is now posing a severe threat to commercial pelargonium cultivation - apart from anything else, because people are starting to avoid buying the plants, knowing they won't survive.

Why does it do so much damage? The larvae of the butterfly don't feed on the leaves. They burrow right into the stems and eat the plant from the inside out, killing it. If you can spot the tell-tale holes you can sometimes cut off the affected part - but over the season you frequently end up cutting back the whole plant.

And go away for a few weeks, like I always have to in the summer (...have to? Only a gardener could feel like that about a holiday ) and you come back to this ...

What can be done about them? There don't seem to be many organic options. One of the studies recommends the "natural" insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis Kurstaki - but don't ask me where I'd get hold of it. (Wonder how many times longer than the bacteria the name is?) There is also an insect with the equally wonderful name of Macrolophus caliginosus Wagner, which feeds off the eggs and hatchling larvae - but ditto, and would it stay on the balcony anyway? Another source suggested companion planting. Highly aromatic plants like lavender, mint and thyme are supposed to discourage the butterfly. Well, I can try - but I have my doubts. By pure chance I did have mint growing fairly near the pelargoniums this year. Not close enough maybe ...

Other than that, it seems there are only two choices - swamp the plants with noxious chemicals, or give up on pelargoniums all together. Don't like the first, and don't want to do the second. But it seems the only other option is to invite yet another massacre ...

Useful Links

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Roll on November ...

This was the week that the temperature dropped 10°C overnight. Last Sunday I went to the garden centre wearing only a T-shirt (well, no - I had trousers on too, but you know what I mean...) Today I'm sitting at home with the heating on and I've still had to put on a long sleeved jumper (that's a sweater for anyone who lives west of County Kerry).

It started with two days of heavy winds. Wind is unusual in Milan, but very welcome - it blows away the pall of smog that usually envelops the city. And last week, the Foehn was blowing.

Now, I'm sure I've posted about the Foehn before - but I can't for the life of me find the post. Was it one I started and then deleted? Who knows. But apologies if you've read this before.

The Foehn is a wind which occurs around a mountain range. It has different names in different countries - the Helm wind in the UK, the Chinook in the US and Canada, the Bergwind in South Africa - and many, many more. Don't ask me to explain the details - it's something about the "different adiabatic lapse rates of moist and dry air." Yeah, well - perhaps that's why I deleted the post ...

It's a strong, gusty wind which in Milan usually brings down branches from trees and often the trees themselves. But it's a warm wind - when the Foehn blows the temperature usually rises.

So it was even more of a shock to wake up at five the next morning, freezing to death. The temperature had plummeted overnight, and the single blanket that we'd been using just wasn't enough any more.

The rest of the week has been a constant rush to catch up. Winter clothes have come out of the cupboards, plants have come in from the balcony (yes, don't worry - I'll get back to the plants in a minute), and on trips to the supermarket I'm no longer stocking up with salad but with beans, lentils, and other stuff for good hearty soups and casseroles.

The plants on the balcony don't like it any more than we do. The photos above are from ten days ago - the plumbago was still in full bloom, the sunflower was developing a good crop of seed heads and the petunias and marigolds were appreciating the cooler weather and looking better than they had in August. Now they're looking considerably shell shocked.

This is the sunflower today. I'll spare you the others - this is a family blog.

And ever the optimist in the garden, in the last few weeks, with temperatures around 20°C - that's 68°F - I was still doing some late sowing. Now with temperatures around 10°C/50°F, I suspect I was wasting my time.

But every season has its advantages and as one set of plants dies, another always takes over. Look at that photo of the sunflower again. See the chrysanths behind it? And see how many buds? Roll on November ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When Pets Become Pests ...

It's not every day that a London bird makes the evening news on Italian TV. But the other night there was a short feature on the bird which is probably now the most frequently seen visitor in my London garden - the rose ringed parakeet.

I posted about them two years ago, the last time I was in London, talking about how they are increasing exponentially and the problems they are causing. This year they were even more in evidence. The population is now generally supposed to be about 30,000 with the RSPB predicting 50,000 by 2010 - all descendants of escaped pets (or if you believe some reports, of a flock which escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of the Bogart/Hepburn movie The African Queen. Whaat?! You mean that river was really the Thames??)

I always look forward to seeing them in the garden when I go back. They're great to watch : colourful and very funny. They're clowns who give a circus performance every time they fly in. But I can see why - and this is what got them onto the Italian news - they have now officially been listed as vermin. Which means that they can now legally be killed, under general license, by landowners who can show that they are damaging their property.

And they do cause damage, as my neighbour - who has four or five fruit trees in her garden knows. I doubt if she got a single item of fruit this year which didn't have a large lump taken out of it.

OK, maybe if they're in your garden you put up with it. I would, and my neighbour didn't seem particularly bothered. Even if she was, the new law certainly doesn't give householders carte blanche to start killing the birds. The general license list specifies particular reasons for which specific birds may be killed, including damage to crops, health and safety risks, and threats to other wildlife. Anyone killing a bird on the list without one of these reasons faces a £5,000 fine or a six-month prison sentence. For the ring-necked parakeets, one of the reasons accepted is crop damage. Fruit trees in the back garden may not count as "crops", but the birds are causing considerable problems for commercial fruit growers in Kent and other areas, and I can well understand that they might consider culling.

The second justification specified is because of the threat to other wildlife. The parakeets have also been accused of causing a vast reduction in the numbers of other species of birds. They nest in hollow trees and have simply moved into all the available space, leaving nothing for the other species. Controversy rages about how true this is, but something is clearly displacing the tree-nesters. I said two years ago that the woodpeckers and nuthatches seemed to have disappeared from the garden. But at that time the owls were still holding their own. This year there were none, for the first time ever since I was a child.

So the parakeets have joined pigeons, crows and magpies - the last two also clearly on the increase from the numbers I saw - on the list of official pests, together with a couple of other new additions, such as the Canada Goose - again regarded as a danger to crops, and also a public health and safety problem.

The London Wildlife Trust has opposed the placing of both birds on the list, while the RSPB has suggested that there is a need for more evidence of the impact the parakeets have outside urban areas. And amongst Londoners, opinion is divided. The parakeets were once called "the grey squirrel of the skies" - an apt description. Like the grey squirrels, they're a non-native species which has become dominant, displacing native species. And like the grey squirrel you either love them or you hate them.

Me? Well, I'm the one who feels guilty if she kills a few red spider mite, so you can imagine ... But as I said in a recent post, I love seeing grey squirrels in the garden - and I guess that goes for the variety from the skies too.

Explore some more ...

How do parakeets survive in the UK? BBC Website

Is it time to start culling parakeets? The Guardian

Britains's naturalised parrot now officially a pest The Independent

Statement on Monk and Ring-necked Parakeets Natural England

No open season on shooting parakeets, says RSPB Wandsworth Guardian

Are parakeets threatened with control? London Wildlife Trust

Saturday, October 10, 2009


One of the advantages of balcony gardening is that you don't get weeds. Not having a garden means that, of necessity you're using bought - and sterilised - compost, and though the odd thing will float in on the wind, it's relatively rare. Tip the soil into your container, pop in your plants, and that's it for the season. So you get to be a bit ingenuous about weeds ...

One of the jobs I worked hardest on when I was in London in July and August was clearing and replanting the flowerbeds - I found them completely overgrown with grass and borage. I didn't even think of it as "weeding". The beds just had to be completely dug over and everything pulled out.

And then, I started planting. Bulbs galore went in, but I also scoured the local garden centres for special offers, so that I could get as much planted as possible on a budget that was rapidly being eaten up by the repairs that needed doing on the house.

So when I left at the end of August, the beds were looking - well, a bit bare, but I hoped the bulbs would take care of that. And there were new roses, pansies, lavender bushes and other things dotted around.

Two weeks later I was back. And walked into a sea of green - which certainly had nothing to do with the bulbs. The garden was covered with one particular weed, which try as I might I can't find the name of (?). I can't say I wasn't expecting it - but the speed with which it had sprung up was incredible. Plant seeds that you want to have in the garden, and after two weeks they're only just thinking of germinating. But these had just yelled Yippee! Bare soil and sprung up in their thousands. Helped along, of course, by a bit of grass and an entirely new crop of borage.

Luckily, they're a weed which is very easily dealt with. Grab a handful and pull, or hoe. They come out with no problem. So a few hours of hard work later, the beds were looking bare but pristine again. And even more luckily, they'd not had time to seed. I'm hoping that all the seeds that my August digging had brought to the surface had germinated immediately, so that I was able to get the lot in one fell swoop.

I can hear you laughing hysterically from here. No, I don't really believe it either. I'll be back in London in a few weeks time, and I'm sure I'll find the beds covered again. But if I get rid of that lot, and the next ones that come up are killed off by the winter weather, then maybe by next year things will be better. Please ...?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


When I left England, there wasn't much in flower in the garden but it was full of berries. Red ones, orange ones, purple ones and white ones .... everywhere you turned there was a mass of colour. Folklore would have it that an abundance of berries in autumn heralds a hard winter, and if my garden is anything to go by, it's going to be a tough one ...

The purple ones were the elderberries. Strictly speaking these aren't in my garden, as the tree is actually in the park behind. But the branches have spread over my fence. In the spring the flowers must have been wonderful, and now there's a mass of berries. If I were there permanently, I'd have used them to make wine ... or a pie ... or a sauce. Just google elderberries recipe and see what comes up. I rather liked the look of this one from
The Times Online.

Sadly, the elderberry tree is leaning on the fence so heavily that it's bringing the fence down, and I've had to ask the council to lop it. I did ask them to take away the minimum possible though ...

Then there are the snowberries. Snowberry is a scrubby little bush which has the extremely inflated name of Symphoricarpos albus - always sounds like something out of Harry Potter to me. Not a shrub I'd really recommend - invasive, and the leaves and small pink flowers are not desperately attractive. But the berries are nice in autumn. Mine self seeded years ago, and for years I toiled away trying to dig it up. But it always sprang straight back and in the end I gave up. However, it does have the virtue that it's just about the only thing which will grow in the shade of the cotoneaster tree.

Not sure what variety this is, and can't for the life of me remember what its flowers are like. Sadly, I've not seen the garden in spring for over twenty five years. But it's always covered in berries in the autumn.

There's another cotoneaster in the garden as well - cotoneaster horizontalis - a much smaller shrub, but if possible with even more berries.

Cotoneaster is a word I have a mental block about. I have to look it up every single time I want to talk about the plant. It's odd, because that it's not that I don't know what the plant itself is - I do. But the name that always comes to mind is pyrocantha, despite the fact that I know perfectly well that it's not. So that's what I tend to call it to myself : the not-pyrocantha plant.

I do have a real pyrocantha though as part of my front hedge, currently covered in yellowy-orange berries.

I curse it all summer when I have to cut the hedge - it's full of thorns which get through even the thickest gardening gloves. But the show in autumn makes it worthwhile.

So - if we are in for a hard winter, at least the birds will have something to eat. If you're trying to grow a wildlife garden, they're all plants to include. Different species feed off them all - though snowberries (which are poisonous to humans incidentally) are preferred by pheasants, grouse and other similar species. Not many of them in a London garden. But blackbirds are supposed to love the pyrocantha berries and the elderberries and cotoneaster seem generally popular. At the moment, with food abundant, they're being ignored. But once the fruit trees are bare, and there are fewer seeds and insects around, the situation will change. In particular, I suspect we'll soon be a favourite haunt of the rose-ringed parakeets. But more of them in another post...

Friday, October 02, 2009

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

Mum, come quick - there's a thing on your plants!

And what a thing. It was a Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) - an insect which visits the balcony occasionally, but is by no means common. If I see one a year I'm lucky, and this was certainly the first I've spotted this year.

Excuse the not-exactly-perfect photos. They're not called Hummingbird Hawk-moths for nothing - they don't land on the plants but hover above them, keeping themselves alight by rapid wing flapping while they suck the nectar through their long proboscis (you can see it in the second and last photos). And they flit frequently from flower to flower. Which makes them difficult to photograph - especially when you've had to rush back into the house desperately trying to remember where you'd left your camera, and praying it would still be there when you got back. Which it was - but I had no time to worry about camera settings. I just clicked and hoped. However, if you follow some of the links you'll find some much clearer photos.

I knew they were described in a book I have (
Collins Complete Guide to British Wildlife - a super book for basic identification of plants, birds, animals and insects found in the UK which I recommend highly), so later I went to look it up. They are apparently widespread across Mediterranean countries, central Asia and Japan, and get as far north as Scotland in the summer. In fact, following things up on the web later, I came across the UK Butterfly Conservation site, where you can record sightings. Mine's there now.

The adults love plumbago - that's where I almost always see them. But the book told me that the larvae feed on bedstraw.

My mind boggled. Was this beautiful insect in danger of dying out because of a lack of impoverished peasants stuffing their mattresses with straw? Were hypoallergenic fillings signalling the end of a species?

But no. Bedstraw is the common name of the genus Galium - which includes wildflowers such as
Lady's Bedstraw and Hedge Bedstraw. I've not seen either growing much around Milan - which probably explains why we don't see the moths very often.

Moths. They look so different that it's hard to believe they really are moths - and one
Italian site I found says that their visitors often mistake them for real hummingbirds. No sorry - not in Europe. I wish.

Ah well - that was my annual sighting, I thought. But then I came across this on the
BBC Science and Nature site : Studies have noted that they have a remarkable memory, and return to the same flowerbeds at the same time everyday.

So maybe I should keep an eye open over the weekend.

Explore some more ...

Other nice sites which describe the hummingbird hawk-moth include :

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Skywatch Friday : Alps

Last week, I flew back to Milan from London. It was a beautifully clear day, with almost no cloud, providing wonderful views of Europe below. The white cliffs of Dover, the Seine winding through Paris, the Eiffel Tower and Versailles - they were all clearly visible.

Despite oohing and aahing for most of the trip though, it didn't occur to me that I had my camera in my bag until we reached the Alps. And thank goodness it finally did, because there the show really started. First there were the lower mountains, punctuated by long, twisting valleys with tiny houses clustered along the bottoms ...

But then we got into the high peaks. Where were we exactly? I'm not sure. Could that have been the Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn in the pictures below? I wish airlines would tell you where you were more often. German Wings used to have wonderful little screens dotted around the cabin which showed you your route, and exactly where the plane had got to, but even they seem to have discontinued it.

Wherever we were, it was a flight I won't forget.

For more great photos of the sky and from the sky, check out the Skywatch Friday site. Of the photos already posted this week, some of my favourites were on Stony River in Ireland. Enjoy.

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