Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review of the Year 2009

Has a year really passed since I was sitting here doing the review of 2008? It seems about five minutes ago. But in three days it´s going to be 2010, so here´s a look back at what has happened this year...

On January 1st we were in Germany and it was snowing. But that didn´t stop me getting myself to the local garden centre and stocking up on seeds for the year. Sadly it wasn´t to be a particularly good year on the balcony - too much work and having to be away a lot meant that I had much less time to spend on gardening, and the casualty rate was high. So if you don´t remember having seen photos of many of the plants in the seed packets, well that´s why.

Back in Milan and the bad weather continued, meaning that most of my gardening happened indoors. At the end of the month I posted on looking after Scindapsus - a plant which people often scorn, but which personally I love having around.

By February the weather was getting better, and it was time to start preparing for the year. A balcony may not be quite so time-consuming as a garden, but there´s still plenty to do clearing up after the winter and preparing for spring. See
here for a checklist. February was also the month when I posted about how my cooking tended to revolve around the herb savory - and how I was planning to grow it on the balcony in 2009. Sadly it was one of the failures, but I´ll be trying again this year.

March arrived, and suddenly things were blooming again. Much to my surprise, the tulip bulbs which I´d planted for the second year running were the greatest success of the season. So much for all the books which said that tulip bulbs planted in containers should be thrown away after flowering. They´ve gone in again this year - we shall see.

In April, I was also planting salad and veg. But we´ll draw a veil over that one. If my flower gardening wasn´t greatly successful this year, the kitchen garden was a disaster. It produced exactly two French beans ... But then, when your packet of lettuce seeds assures you you´ll be harvesting tomatoes, I suppose failure is to be expected. Confused? So was I - click here.

May. If the balcony isn´t looking good in May, then it never will be. My pride and joy this year was my little campanula, which bloomed its heart out for me all month.

June was pretty good too, with nasturtiums, petunias and surfinia, pelargoniums, hollyhocks and begonias all in full bloom. And for the first time ever, I managed to persuade the great tits and blue tits which live in the garden surrounding the flat to come on to the balcony to feed.

In July we were off to England - where I found my garden completely overgrown. The photo below shows what used to be the rose bed. Two months hard work followed, to get it back to some semblance of order. I planted a lot of bulbs and other stuff while I was there - and hope to get back soon to see how they are doing.

However, the overgrown state of the garden meant that it had become a haven for wildlife - including a family of foxes, who soon realised that dinner was on offer nightly. Not too much - we wouldn´t be there to provide for them forever and the young ones had to learn to forage for themselves. But enough to encourage them to come and check us out every evening.

In September my son and I went to the sea for ten days - to Eraclea Mare, not far from Venice. It was undoubtedly the best two weeks of the year.

On one of our many walks and bike rides into the lagoon, I spotted a buzzard circling high above us.

September also brought the honour of being voted "Best Container Gardening Blog" on Blotanical - something I truly didn´t expect as the competition was so strong.

In October I found a mystery plant had self seeded itself in one of the containers. But several people who read the post were able to identify it as Kalanchoe daigremontiana - or Mother of Thousands. Sadly it succumbed to the sudden drop in temperature we had in December. It was looking very sorry for itself when I left for Christmas holidays, and I very much doubt if it will have made it.

But on a cheerier note, October was also the month when the
Hummingbird Hawkmoth visited the balcony.

In November the
chrysanthemums were in bloom ....

... and it was also the month when Bilbo the garden gnome visited the Balcony Garden. for those of you who don´t know him, he´s doing a world tour, and visiting people´s blogs along the way. When he left me, he went off to Sweden to visit Gittan and play in the snow..

In December the weather turned chilly and it was time to cover up the balcony before the first sprinkling of snow fell. Everything was covered with fleece and moved back against the warmth of the walls of the flat. But temperatures were about to fall to a record -14C (that´s 7F). That happened the day we left for Germany again, so I´ve not yet seen what damage it´s done. Will anything have survived?

So, the year has come full circle, and in a couple of days will start again. It was a busy, and at times hectic year, but without real ups and downs. I had little time for the balcony (and some months even less for blogging) and it showed in the results. So my goal for next year is to find the time again, and to have the balcony looking as good as it has in some past years. And of course, to get a few more than two French beans ....

To everyone who´s followed the Balcony Garden over the past year, I hope you have a very, very

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The 2009 Christmas Quiz

We just got away in time, before the snow created havoc. Two days after we left, Milan is at a standstill with trains not running, and airports closed. Schools closed too, much to my son´s disgust as he´s not there to profit from it. Here in north Germany on the contrary, the worse seems to be over. Temperatures are again above zero (in comparison to -14C the night we arrived) and a night of rain has washed away most of the snow. So will it be a white Christmas? There´s still time yet, but at the moment it´s looking much less likely than on Sunday.

Since The Balcony Garden started, we´ve always had a Christmas Quiz focusing on the plants associated with Christmas time. You can see them all if you click on the link. The 2006 quiz was easy - plenty of questions to ask. 2007 went well too. But by 2008 I was having to get really sneaky, and this year - well, if you get five out of five this time (without cheating and looking them up on the internet), the you really know your Christmas traditions. So here goes - the 2009 Balcony Garden Christmas Quiz.

1. The photo above shows a German Christmas tradition - an evergreen wreath with four candles. But when are the candles traditionally lit, and why?

2. There is a legend that during the Holy Family´s flight to Egypt, Mary laid some freshly washed clothes of the Christ Child over a bush to dry, so that the fragrance of the bush would permeate the clothes. In recognition of the honour bush changed the colour of its flowers from white to blue. What type of bush was it?

3. Every year on December 23rd a festival is held in the Town Square in Oaxacaca, Mexico as part of the Christmas celebrations. The festival consists of a competition for the best carving made from a particular vegetable. Which vegetable is it?

4. In Lithuania there is a traditional Christmas Eve meal in which no meat or hot food is eaten. One of the traditional foods consists of small pastries soaked in a "milk" made from a certain type of seeds. The seeds are soaked in water for a day, then crushed until a white liquid is obtained. This is then diluted with water and sweetened with honey or sugar. But what type of seeds are used?

5. Which of the following banned the Christmas tree?
a) The Bolsheviks after the 1917 October Revolution.
b) President Roosevelt, who didn´t want one in the White House because he objected to trees being cut down to be used as decorations.
c) The United Nations, from the Copenhagen summit last week, in order to avoid the use of a symbol of a religious festival.

So how did you do? Here are the answers :

1. It´s an Advent Wreath, and one candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas, until on the final Sunday all four candles are burning.
2. A rosemary bush. Another version of the legend says that it was Mary´s cloak which was laid on the bush, which better explains the change to blue flowers.
3. A giant radish. You can read more about it here.
4. Poppy seeds.
5. All of them.

Ah well, after that Christmas can only get easier... Here´s hoping you have a wonderful time and have only just enough snow to make it a white Christmas without causing any problems.

Happy Christmas !

Sunday, December 20, 2009

So who won ?

I got the plants on the balcony covered up with fleece just in time. A couple of days later, temperatures had dropped to freezing and there was a sprinkling of snow. By yesterday there was considerably more than a sprinkling, and by nine in the evening it was -10 degrees centigrade outside. That´s 14 fahrenheit. I don´t remember temperatures like that in Milan ever. Despite the fleece, I wonder how much is going to survive.

Temperatures are similar all over Europe. I don´t know how low it finally dropped overnight in Milan, because we then left for Germany, where we´re spending Christmas. And arrived at -14C (7F). Today is better - it´s been snowing again, and there´s a bitterly cold wind, but temperatures are up to -2C. The plants on my sister-in-law´s balcony seem to be holding up. We´ll see ...

A plea - while weather conditions are like this, don´t forget the birds. It´s tough enough for themout there without going hungry too.

To cheerier things ... who won the mystery bulb competition?The forst person to get it was Dreamybee . It´s Dracunculus vulgaris - an arum lily. When I saw the photo of the flowers they reminded me of the giant Titan arum that I´d heard of at Kew Gardens. But I was sure it couldn´t be that - firstly because it´s huge- over 10 foot high - and secondly because it stinks to high heaven. It puts out a smell like a rotting corpse to attract flies and other pollinating insects. Not a flower that anyone would want on the balcony.

So when I saw it, I just assumed it would be something different. But no -this may not be the titan arum, but it is a smaller cousin, and it has the same revolting smell. So I don´t think it´s going to be around for very long. Providing it survives, you´ll be seeing one photo - and then I´m afraid it will be down the waste chute with it. And next year, if I see any strange bulbs that I think might be fun to try, I think I´ll ask about them before I buy them ...

Anyway, as soon as I get home in the New Year, I shall get the cards off to Dreamybee as promised. And thanks to all of the rest of you who left comments too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter is here ...

Winter arrived this week, just in time for the December edition of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. I don't have much to show this year though - not like 2007 when I still had pelargoniums, marigolds and several other annuals in full bloom, or even 2008 when my antirrhinums were still going strong. This year, all that's in bloom are my chrysanthemums.

It's not been a cold autumn. Although recently it had started to get chillier, daytime temperatures were still reaching 10 or 11°C (50-52°F). And then suddenly the forecast was for maximum 7°C and minimum 3°C. Not freezing yet, but enough to start warning bells ringing in any gardener's mind. And when on Saturday morning I went out to find a bitterly cold north wind blowing - well, it was clearly time to put the balcony to bed.

And so at lunchtime I was outside making preparations for the winter. The last of the annuals - by now fading fast - got pulled up, and the perennials moved back from the balcony railings to nestle up to the warmth of the walls of the house. A little bit of water just to stop them drying out completely, and on went the fleece. All that's left now are the bulbs - many of which are already poking through. I've replanted the daffs and tulips from last year, to see if they'll do anything, and I also have several containers of mystery bulbs - bulbs I found in my London garden in the summer and brought back with me. They're all coming through well, but so far I've still not been able to recognise what they are. Some with long grass like stems may be snowflakes - but we'll have to wait and see.

And of course there's this year's new collection. I've said before that you virtually have to take out a mortgage to buy bulbs from the garden centres in Milan, and so every year I wait for the Fiera del Artigianato - a trade fair held in early December. It's hard to translate Artigianato. It means crafts - but has a much wider sense than the English word. The fair this year covered everything from what you would expect from the words crafts, to food, to furniture, to clothes, to solar panels and even boats. It's huge, and is divided into geographical areas. The Italian stands are grouped by regions, and the others by continents and then individual countries. So I spent three hours wandering around the world, drooled over some antique ceramics from China, had dinner in India, saw some incredible drumming and bagpipe playing in Scotland, bought some cheese in Switzerland (made with carrots, absolutely scrummy), and ended up in Holland where I have an annual date with a Dutch bulb stand.

And here's what I bought this year - from left to right : allium, fritillaria, freesia, dwarf iris, and lily of the valley. And one other bulb. But oh, was that a mistake ....

It intrigued me when I saw it on the stand. It had an interesting name and a strange flower which reminded me of something I'd heard of blooming at Kew Gardens, a bloom that was so rare it made the news. But no, obviously it couldn't it couldn't possibly be that .... So I thought I'd get one and check on the internet later to see exactly what it was. And oh, what a mistake I've made. this is something that has absolutely no place on a balcony. I'm going to be loathed and reviled by not only my family but also the neighbours. Really, I should throw it straight down the waste chute.

But of course I can't. So I've promised myself I'll grow it, let the flower open, take a photo and then cut it off and throw it out. Quickly. What is it and why does it terrify me so? Over to you. As it's Christmas, I'm giving away a little prize - five Balcony Garden greetings cards (similar to the one below) with some of the best photos from the last few years. First person to identify it and explain and why it's such a big mistake wins.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas means Poinsettia ...

...unfortunately for them. I wonder how many poinsettia are bought at Christmas, and how many are still alive a couple of months later? In fact, I wonder how many people who buy them even want them to be alive a couple of months later? Here in Italy, just before Easter, animal rights groups put up posters condemning the slaughter of lambs for Easter Sunday lunch. I reckon that at Christmas you could do the same for poinsettia ...

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)is native to Mexico - and if that isn't a clue that you'll kill it by bringing it home from the supermarket in temperatures not far above zero, I don't know what is. Even once you've got it home, it likes temperatures around 20-22°C (68-72°F)and lots of light. Don't overwater - it's prone to root rot - but don't let it get dry either.

By about February you'll find it starts to drop its leaves. Yours did and you thought it was dead and threw it away? Yes, I've made that mistake too. But no, it's just resting. Once a good part of the leaves have gone, cut it back to about 20-25cm, keep it fairly dry and at a slightly cooler temperature - but no lower than 15°C (59°F.

In late spring you can repot it and start watering again - but never let it get waterlogged. Use a mix of sand and compost, to guarantee drainage, and start to give it a liquid feed high in nitrogen every 20-30 days, and make sure it also has enough iron. Lack of nitrogen will result in small, slow growing, pale green leaves with yellowish brown blemishes, while lack of iron will lead to the leaves turning creamy white at the edges with brown areas between the veins. Oh - and don't forget the molybdenum - essential if the bracts are to have a strong colour.

In the heat of the summer it can stay outside - but beware. As if its fussiness about being fed wasn't enough, it's also prone to a host of pests and diseases - whitefly, blackfly, thrips, mealybugs, red spider mite, root rot, collar rot, mildew, and grey mould to name but a few. Though the fungal diseases can be avoided by ensuring it's never waterlogged, in humid conditions or given too much nitrogen - yes, I know, I know. You can't win, can you?

If you've ever seen the film When Harry Met Sally you'll know that Sally defines herself as a woman "who wants her cream on the side" (or something like that - I've only seen it in Italian so I'm translating.)In other words, somewhat fussy. And if ever there was a plant which wants its cream on the side, it must be Poinsettia.

And we've not finished yet. Let's say you manage to give it just the right amount of water and fertiliser, you protect it from the insect hordes (whoops - forgot the sap suckers who will instantly infect it with a virus)and get it through to the autumn. can you now relax and wait for those lovely coloured bracts to appear, ready for Christmas?

No way. Those bracts will only appear if for at least two months it's kept in darkness for at least 14 hours a day. That means from, say, 6pm to 8am. Though of course it wants light for the rest of the day. So forget working late in the evening or going out straight after work. Not to mention getting in before 9 in the morning. And they say kids can destroy your career and social life...

I'm starting to understand why everyone breathes a sigh of relief if their poinsettias don't make it through the holidays. It's like trying to cater for the biggest prima donna Hollywood has ever managed to produce.

So why has it become the Christmas plant par excellence? Well, clearly because of the star shape that the bracts form - but there's also a legend which is so nice that it almost makes you forgive the plant for being such a fusspot. If you search the web you'll find a wealth of different versions, but basically it goes something like this ...

There was once a little Mexican girl who was so poor that she had no gift to present to the Christ child at the Christmas Eve church service. Shamefully she picked a handful of weeds from the roadside, the only thing she could think of that she could take. Seeing her crying for the inadequacy of the gift and wanting to cheer her up, someone reassured her "Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes."

The girl arrived at the church, still scared to present such a poor gift to the baby Jesus despite the reassurance. But as she laid the handful of weeds by the crib they suddenly burst into a glorious display of red stars.

Since when we've all been desperately trying to keep our poinsettias alive from year to year, and generally failing pathetically. Ah well, perhaps this year...

Monday, December 07, 2009

Give Seeds this Christmas ...

They don't know it yet, but my family will be getting something slightly different in their stockings this Christmas. It might be seeds, or four saplings. It could be a few chickens, or 365 eggs. Maybe schoolbooks or a health check -up ...

No - my family don't need 365 eggs, or health check-ups for Christmas. The gift isn't really for them. But in their name I'll be donating to a charity who will give the seeds, or the chickens, or the health check-up, to someone who does.

Expensive? No. There's a huge range of gifts for less than €15 - that's about US$22.50 or £13.50 at the current exchange rate. And some are only half that price.

Why am I giving them? Well, one reason is that I'm sick of trawling the shops for presents for people who already have everything they need. Don't worry - they'll have other presents, and if they've asked for anything special I'm sure Santa will oblige (just in case they're reading this and panicking ...). But often at Christmas I feel that I'm looking for presents to buy for the sake of it. Yes, a surprise is always nice, and during the year I note down anything that occurs to me that might suit one or other of them - but sometimes it's just consumerism for the sake of it. And I'm fed up with it.

And the other reason - well, just the ethical one. Most of us do have all we need even if we're not quite as rich as Bill Gates. Many people don't. Bill Gates can make a difference all on his own. The rest of us can't - but just imagine if every blogger in the world who could afford it bought a charity gift costing somewhere between $1 and $15 this Christmas. Together we would make a difference - at least to the lives of a significant number of individuals.

Choose the cause you prefer - that doesn't matter. It could be hunger, education, climate change, animal rescue, health, education - or a wealth of other issues. There's so much to change in the world that, sadly, whatever most angers you is catered for. Here are a few possibilities, all under the €15 limit - but there are hundreds of others, obviously including gifts which are more expensive if you can afford more. Check out the sites for yourself.

Oxfam is my favourite for easily affordable gifts. You can buy 5 bags of seeds to aid self sufficiency for a third world family for £10, give a chicken for £11, or provide safe water for 10 people for £9. Then there are school supplies for £7, mosquito nets for £11 and many, many more. If you want to pay more, how about planting an allotment for £24?

Or over at Save the Children ,for £7 you can pay for a week's high protein food for a malnourished child. Or you could buy a child a breakfast egg per day for a year for £14, or a pair of shoes for £10.

Nothing grabs you yet? Then try the
shop of the related sites The Hunger Site, The Rainforest Site, The Breast Cancer Site, the Child Health Site, the Literacy Site and The Animal Rescue Site. There for $15 you can help remove landmines in Mozambique, care for a street animal in India or plant a vegetable garden in Rwanda.

These are just examples. The shops of all the sites include many, many more gifts in all price ranges. So if there's someone that you just can't think of a present for - well, perhaps they don't really need anything. But maybe someone else does.

The Hunger Site

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