Saturday, December 11, 2010

Looking after the snails

So there I was last Sunday evening, washing the turnip tops ready for dinner, when I found a snail. Well, it happens. He seemed to have survived 24 hours in the fridge quite happily, and was clearly perking up, so I popped him on my spider plant while I decided what to do with him. And then I found another one ... and another one... and ...

By the time I'd finished I had five of them - and quite honestly had lost most of my desire for turnip tops that night. But what was I going to do with them? Temperatures outside were well below zero, and a quick look at the internet said that snails freeze if they haven't got themselves into a well-protected position before temperatures drop. And whilst one on the balcony chomping away at the plants probably wouldn't have done much harm (they were very small), I wasn't sure I wanted five of them running rampage for the whole winter.

So the snailery was born. A large glass vase covered with clingfilm with airholes punched in. And the five of them - Fred, George, Ron, Bill and Percy - have been happily chomping away on a basil plant, plus various vegetable peelings that I've popped in for them, for the past week.

OK, OK. Like my family you probably now have that expression on your face which says This time she's really flipped - but I am not alone. I have discovered a whole website dedicated to keeping snails as pets...

And oh dear - I find I have to get my act together. I've got to provide them with calcium, cook their carrots and potatoes, stock up with tortoise food in case I get snowed in and can't provide them with fresh greens, make sure they have somewhere to lay their eggs, protect them from mites ...

I'm not entirely sure whether I'm supposed to take them for regular walks - but I suppose come spring a few excursions on the balcony might be in order...

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Chrysanthemum Experiment - Results

This year I've been experimenting with my chrysanthemums. I have some little yellow ones which I've been growing for years now. Every year I leave the old plants till early spring, and then take cuttings from the new growth. That's what all the books tell you to do, saying that the old plants will never produce such good blooms in subsequent years. Was it true? This year I decided to try it out.

If you click here, you'll find the posts I wrote in March (when I took the cuttings) and May (when they'd taken and it was time to "stop" all them in order to convince them to put out side shoots). But I've reproduced the photos to show you the main stages. I took cuttings, but didn't throw the old plants away. Instead I planted the cuttings in the same container, in between the older ones.

Why? well firstly to fill the gaps left by a couple that had died over the winter. But also to ensure that the soil, water, light and fertiliser conditions were identical for both sets of plants. As any primary school child will tell you, an experiment is only a "fair test" if one variable, and one only had been changed. In this case the variable was old plants vs cuttings. Everything else was identical.

Back in May, the new plants looked pretty puny in comparison with the old. But by the time autumn arrived, I could only remember which was which by going back to the spring photos to check.

By October they were covered in buds. Whichever won, it was going to be a good year. And, when the buds opened, it was immediately clear that...

... there was no difference at all. Both sets of plants are full of flowers, the flowers are all of the same size, and I can see no difference of any kind.

So will I be taking cuttings next year? Yes, certainly. But to increase the number of plants I have, not to replace the old ones. From now on, my chrysanths can go on for as long as they feel like it...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Canal in Autumn

This year's autumn colours were amazing - I don't remember ever having seen anything like it in this area. I imagine it was something to do with the weather - just the right amount of rain at the right time, just the right temperatures.... something like that.

But it was so beautiful, that one day we walked down the canal just to take some photos...

Most of the trees here turn yellow or brown - there are very few reds ...

Just a few ornamental maples that have been planted, and then this hydrangea that was peeking through the undergrowth...

The Virginia Creeper looked as if it knew it should be red, but was trying desperately to blend in with its surroundings..

And with yellows and browns like these around, who could blame it?

These aren't leaves, but seeds, sycamore type. Thousands and thousands of them.

We walked for a couple of hours...

And by the time we got back, it was almost dark.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wildflower Wednesday - Bindweed

Am I the only person in the world who loves Bindweed (Calystegia sepium, also called Convolvulus sepium)? Yes, I know it's a problem and just as invasive as my dreaded borage. For the same reason too - leave an smidgin of root behind when you pull it out, and it will grow back. Even the RHS site seems to give up and just recommend drowning it in glyphosate. I once saw the garden of an abandoned house which had been swamped by it. You literally couldn't see an inch of ground. But oh, was it glorious. Just a sea of white flowers.

So this is my contribution for Wildflower Wednesday, the brainchild of Gail over at Clay and Limestone. I've never participated before, but while I was on holiday in the Veneto in early September, I collected up a few wildflower photos to brighten up the winter months. And with temperatures predicted to drop to -4°C tonight, with snow tomorrow, I reckon it's time to start.

The flower in the photo is long dead - but never fear. Those roots are still there, hibernating under the sandy coastal soil. They'll be back again next year...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who ordered that?

What on earth are these and wherever did they come from? I noticed them first at the end of October - lots of little green shoots sprouting in the container that had held my Four o'clocks and a couple of Honesty. They were clearly bulbs, and there were about twenty of them, so no chance of them having self-seeded.

I've racked my brains and I have absolutely no memory of having planted bulbs in that container. If I did, they must have gone in at the beginning of spring, if not before. I don't actually remember planting any bulbs since last autumn. But what are they, and why have they come up now of all times of the year?

I did have a quick look round the container to see if there might be an old forgotten label lying around. But I know myself too well to have really believed I'd find one. Label the containers? Who me?

So it's wait and see time. Till next spring presumably, when with any luck there'll be some flowers. Oh well, only four months to go ...

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Taken in early September while we were in the Veneto at Eraclea Mare. The cloud seemed to be hanging right over the path. You felt as if you could reach up and pull it down.

I've been meaning to post these photos for Skywatch Friday ever since we got back. The autumn has just flown ...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday - Berries


...and Hawthorn.

Both spotted at Eraclea Mare while we were on holiday there in September. They say a wealth of berries in autumn signals a hard winter to come. Dig out your woolly jumpers...

Some of the other contributors to
Wordless Wednesday are a bit stricter about the wordless bit than me. Click on the link to check out their pics.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Skywatch Friday - Sweden

Two weeks ago I was in southern Sweden. And the skies were tremendous.

I took these on the train from Copenhagen Airport to Lund, where I was working. And just as I put my camera away, a skein of about 60 Canadian geese flew overhead, migrating for the winter.

And of course, they'd gone before I could get the camera back out. Pity. That would really have been a photo worth posting for
Skywatch Friday.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Cyclamen - Who Me?

I decided not to buy any cyclamen this year. I lost all the ones I had in last year's hard winter, and decided I couldn't be bothered fussing with them again. It tends to be too hot in the house to keep them in flower, and there's not enough light, whereas outside I risk losing them as soon as temperatures drop. They also prefer slightly acidic conditions - a bother to maintain with the hard water we have here.
So I thought I'd give them a miss this winter. But then I saw these - and they were sooo pretty, I just had to bring them home.

A week later, I saw these...

At which point I thought I might as well get some red ones too...

Oh well, here's hoping for a warm winter.

Monday, November 01, 2010

November Again

It's November, already. I'm not sure where the autumn has gone. I've been very busy with work - hence the scarcity of posts recently - including a great two days in Lund, in southern Sweden. I was hoping to meet up with Gittan, but it was such a flying visit that we couldn't match our schedules. Never mind, I loved Lund and hope to be back - I knew it was my sort of place when the first thing I saw on coming out of the station was a sign pointing to the botanical gardens.

There hasn't been much time for the balcony either, but some work has gone on. All the houseplants came back indoors a couple of weeks ago, just before the heating came on. They could have stayed out longer, as it was still relatively warm, but then when I finally did bring them in, there would have been a sudden huge increase in temperature. As it is, they all seem to have settled in well.

A few new plants have gone in - pansies, cyclamen and some new chrysanthemums ...

... and I've got some bulbs in too. Most of them are leftovers from last year and I'm not expecting them to do much. Must get some more.

I've also sown some sweet peas, despite the fact that I know the climate here is wrong for them and they never reach maturity. But each year I manage to convince myself that if I get them started in the autumn, they'll be in flower before the heat and humidity kick in and finish them off. We'll see. Anyway, the seeds were leftover from last year's futile attempt, so I thought I might as well stick them in and try again.

Apart from that, it's mainly been a case of clearing up the stuff from the summer, which is slowly dying off. And collecting the seeds for next year. My Four O'Clocks (Mirabilis Jalapa) were disappointing this year - the first year they've ever let me down. Usually they thrive. But I've saved what seeds there were...

Up to now the autumn has been mainly mild and sunny. But this weekend temperatures have dropped to 10-12°C during the day and it's not going to be long now before we hit the gardener's dreaded average daily temperature of 7°C. The temperature where growth stops and the least hardy specimens start to suffer. Oh well, the summer couldn't last forever I suppose. 175 days to spring, and counting...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Soup for Hallowe'en

Yes, I know I'm the only person left in the world who still puts an apostrophe in Hallowe'en, but then I even use full words and capital letters in my SMSs...

It's crept up on me unawares this year. It's not an Italian tradition, and until recently passed unobserved. But then about ten years ago pumpkins started appearing in the shops at the end of October, as well as other Hallowe'en themed goods.

Until this year. Suddenly nothing. Not a pumpkin in sight, no witches, ghosties and ghouls... Nothing. Is it because shopkeepers found it hadn't caught on enough to make it profitable? Or have the
Catholic church's criticisms put people off? Not sure.

Oh well. Even if I've not seen any Hallowe'en pumkins in the shops, there are plenty of the edible kind around. And last night I made a pumpkin soup that came out so well that I thought I'd share the recipe - which I rather made up as I went along, so apologies if the quantities are a bit approximate.

You need :

1 medium size onion
1 leek
Olive oil
A hot pepper (optional)
Half a pumpkin
A few potatoes
A handful of borlotti beans
Vegetable or chicken stock
Curry powder (optional)
A handful of peas

1. Add the oil and the butter to a heavy bottomed pan and place over a medium heat.

2. Peel and chop the onion and the leek. Add to the pan and fry for a couple of minutes. Then cover, turn down the heat and let them "sweat" - ie they should cook slowly in the oil/butter and their own liquid, turning transparent without browning.

3. If you want to add in the hot pepper, chop and add it at this point. I did - mainly because I wanted to use the pepper's I'd grown on the balcony this summer. But I'm not a great fan of hot peppers, so I think in future I'd omit it. I felt it swamped the other flavours rather. Decide depending on your palate.

4. Meanwhile, peel and dice the pumpkin and the potatoes. Add them to the pan once the leeks and onions seem transparent, and fry for a couple of minutes - keep them covered and turn them occasionally.

5. Add the stock. I nearly always have home-made stock in the freezer, which I swear by as the base of any soup, but yesterday I found I didn't. So I added cold water and sprinkled in a vegetable stock cube. It worked.

6. While the stock is still cold, add the pumpkin, potatoes and borlotti beans. I used fresh beans, but if you use dry you'll need to have soaked them for at least eight hours previously. If you use canned (not advised) drain and rinse them first to get rid of the salt. At this point it should look like this ...

7. Add a small amount of curry powder - again this depends on how much you like it. If you're turning your nose up at the idea of ready mixed curry powder, it probably means you're into Indian spices and can produce a much better blend yourself. Feel free.

8. Simmer for about 45 minutes - or until the beans are cooked. Then tip the lot into a blender and blend until smooth.

9. Tip it back into the pan and add the peas (I used frozen). Simmer until cooked.

10. Add the milk, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over a low heat (don't boil) for another few minutes.

11. Don a witch's or wizard' hat and enjoy with some good crusty bread.

Even with the pepper it was great, and I'm looking forward to trying it again without.

Happy Hallowe'en.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sacrificial Mint??

If there's one thing that has done well for me this year, it's these little peppers. They were an impulse buy - I found them as plug plants in a supermarket and just threw them into the trolley along with some tomatoes that I really wanted.

They weren't quite what I expected. I have to admit to having looked too quickly at the label and thought I was buying big, sweet peppers. But when I got home and read it properly - no, they were small, hot peppers.

Now, we don't usually like hot peppers, so I was more interested in them for their ornamental value than anything else. And have they paid off. They've been green and glossy all summer and are now covered in bright red fruit, which looks great against the green walls of the flat.

And unlike virtually everything else I've grown, they've not been touched by sap sucking insects or red spider mite this year. Apart from a bit of caterpillar damage, they're just about the healthiest plants I've got.

Is that because the bugs don't like them? No. These two plants came in a group of four, and the other two went on the front balcony with the tomatoes. And the insects just dived in and munched. They didn't last much past flowering.

So why the difference? The only thing I can point to is this.

Mint, growing at the bottom of the peppers. Or at least, it was.

Back in the summer I wrote a post on companion planting. Some plants will repel insects, thus protecting any other plants growing nearby. Mint is supposed to be one of them.

Now, I ask you - does this look like a plant that has repelled insects? Huh - they've had a feast.

Rather than repelling the insects, it seems to have acted as a sacrificial plant. They've enjoyed the mint so much (and believe me, a while back there was a lot more of it) that they've left the peppers alone.

Well, that's the theory. I can't find confirmation anywhere that mint should attract pests. Every website I've found so far solemnly assures me that insects can't bear it. They've clearly never met ours.

In any case, I know what's going to be growing between all my other plants next year. it's going to be tomatoes and mint, surfinia and mint, roses and mint, hollyhocks and mint, beans and mint, potatoes and mint, honesty and mint, jerusalem artichokes and mint, zinnia and mint, peas and mint, black-eyed Susans and mint, lettuce and mint, morning glory and mint, sunflowers and mint, delphiniums and mint, marigolds and mint, cosmos and mint, calendula and mint, poppies and mint, rosemary and mint, antirrhinums and mint, radishes and mint, alyssum and mint ....

So should you hear people complaining of a mint shortage in North Italy around about the beginning of May 2011, please don't tell ...

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Autumn has arrived...

Autumn has arrived on the balcony ...

We had a stupendous September. Warm and sunny, but without the oppressive heat and humidity of summer. In terms of weather, it was the nicest month I remember for a long time. But now it's October, and there are clear signs that the summer has gone for good ..

The flowers of the annuals are just a memory. Their containers are already stripped and bare, waiting for the winter bulbs to go in ..

On the Four O'Clocks, seeds have replaced the flowers, and are ready to be collected.

The peppers are ripening fast ...

And the winter flowering pansies have gone in. They may not look much now, but they'll provide the odd flower right through the dark months, and then in spring will suddenly explode again into a riot of colour. Definitely a flower no balcony should be without...

But much sooner than that, the chrysanthemums will be in flower. They're full of buds ...

Bye bye summer. Time to get the winter woollies out again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wordless Wednesday : Pine

I've never participated in Wordless Wednesday before. But this one seemed worth it. Taken in the pinewoods at Eraclea Mare. Click on it to enlarge it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Death of a Squirrel

We were back in Eraclea Mare on holiday this year, and one of the things I noticed was the exponential growth in the number of squirrels around. I posted two years ago about the little brown one I'd seen in the trees a couple of times, but last year I'd seen none. Then this year they were everywhere. The hotel owner confirmed that he too had never seen so many around.

And interestingly, it wasn't just the little brown ones. If you go back to the post of two years ago, you'll see that I said that the "red" squirrels we'd seen at Eraclea were brown with a white belly. And they get darker as you get further south. They're all the same species but three different subspecies - Sciurus vulgaris fuscoater (which I think were the ones we saw) in the north; S.v italicus which are found in central Italy and S.v meridionalis, the black ones in the south.

But even within the subspecies there is a lot of variation of coat colour, and unlike before, this year there were both browns and reds all over the place.

When we're on holiday, my son and I play tennis every evening. Don't ask who wins, because I'm not going to go into that ... But anyway, at the end of the court, there's a hazelnut tree. And every time we played, the game was interrupted three or four times by a cry of Squirrel on court! by whoever was facing towards the tree. They'd run down the side of the court, zap up the tree, grab a nut, and then run back straight down the centre line.

We called them Brownie and Ginger, presuming it was the same pair each time - though who knows. And there were evenings when more squirrel photographing was done than tennis. But then, at my age, any excuse for a pause in a game is a good one...

They were one of the highlights of the holiday. And a very positive sign, as most reports say that the red squirrels in Italy are being threatened by the advance of the greys in the same way as happened in Britain. Nice to know that in one area at least, numbers are increasing.

The last day of the holidays came, we checked out of the hotel and walked up to the bus stop where we'd get the bus back to Venice in order to pick up our train. When we got there, I realised I'd made a mistake. I'd looked at the summer timetable, not realising that it had changed the day before we left, and the bus we thought we were going to catch was no longer running. We had about forty minutes to wait, so as we sat there we started playing I Spy to while away the time.

I'd just said R-S- (thinking Road Sign) when Anthony said Red Squirrel. And sure enough, there was a red squirrel rushing down a tree on one side of the road, scampering across and whizzing up a tree on the other side.

We watched him for a while, and then went on playing - until Anthony suddenly said RRS - Radioactive Red Squirrel. Even I didn't realise what had happened for a moment. The squirrel was in the middle of the road, lying on its back and twisting and squirming horrendously. For a couple of seconds I thought it was trying to rub its back against the asphalt - but then it was obvious - it had been hit by a car.

We hadn't seen the car - but the occasional car had passed and we hadn't really been looking. I would like to think that the driver hadn't seen the squirrel and hadn't realised what had happened. But I wonder ...

I ran over. The squirrel was in the middle of the road and if I'd left him there he'd have been squashed by the next car that passed. Perhaps it would have been the kindest thing, but I couldn't do it. I picked him up - gingerly, and holding firmly to the scruff of his neck with one hand, so he couldn't turn and bite.

But he wasn't even thinking of defending himself. He just lay cupped in my hands, not even seeming scared. He was a young male, and had the softest fur I've ever felt on any animal.

It was clear that he was paralysed from about half way down his spine, and I wanted to put him out of his misery. I put my fingers around his neck to try to break it. You'd think it would be easy, but believe me, it's not. His neck was so unexpectedly thick and solid that I was terrified of just torturing him further, and couldn't do it.

By now he could hardly move at all. He could still slightly wave his front paws, but the frantic twisting that we'd seen when he was in the road had gone. I laid him down in the shade of a tree, where he just lay still, his eyes slightly glazed over. But every few minutes he would suddenly draw in a deep breath and then let out a whimper which rent my heart.

Twenty minutes later, he was dead. I don't know how much he suffered. The paralysis, which seemed to have been progressive, should have meant that there was no pain. I hope so.

But I was numb all the way back to Milan. It wasn't just for his death - these things happen. But I have never felt so powerless, so out of control. We were in a tiny village where there was no vet. Even if I'd known where the nearest one was, we had no car to get there - and anyway, it was likely that I didn't have the time to do anything. I knew that I should have broken his neck there and then but couldn't do it. I felt so guilty.

I don't want it ever to happen again. I've even used Google to try and find out how to break an animal's neck, so I'll be prepared if it ever happens again. But I couldn't find anything that helped.

Sleep well, little squirrel. I hope by now you're scampering around in a heaven full of hazelnut trees, and have forgotten that last half hour. But I won't - ever.

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