Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chrysanthemum cuttings ... or not?

All the gardening books are adamant - Chrysanthemums will do better if you start afresh with new cuttings each year than if you just let the old plants sprout again.

I've always been very obedient. Over the winter the old plants die down, but by spring, shoots are - well, shooting up from the base. And I always pull them off to use them as cuttings.

This isn't intended to be a how-to post, but just in case anyone is interested, it's dead easy. You need shoots at least two inches long. Pull them off gently, then cut the stem straight across just below a leaf node. Again gently, pinch off the lower leaves, leaving just a couple at the top. Pop them into some damp potting compost and - well, just wait. They may look a bit floppy at first, but one day (a month or so later) you'll suddenly notice that they've perked up - and you'll know they've rooted.

There are variations on a theme of course. You could try dipping them in hormone rooting powder before planting them. But I never have, (I can't get the stuff locally)and four out of five have always made it - just plant more than you need. Or you can cover them in a propagator - but I'm getting ahead of my story.

We've had an exceptionally cold winter. Lots of my plants haven't made it and, for the first time, that includes my chrysanthemums. Last autumn I had five plants in this container, all taken from cuttings the previous spring ...

... by this spring only two had survived, and another plant (top photo) was looking extremely sorry for itself.

Now, by rights, I should have stripped all three plants of their new shoots and potted them all up to create new plants. But the bad weather has meant putting it off, and off, and off. Up to ten days ago, night-time temperatures were still below zero - not the best time to take cuttings.

I'm one of those people who, though having enormous respect for the experience of experts, does like to see things for myself. It's not that I don't believe them - I just want to try it out. So I thought that this year I might try an experiment. For the large white variety which was half dead, I've salvaged two cuttings and thrown the mother plant away. But for the little yellow variety, I've mainly left them as they are, only taking enough cuttings to fill the gaps left by the ones that died this winter. Three cuttings have gone into the spaces around the two survivors and I've got a couple more in pots in case those three don't make it. Will the gardening books be right ? In the autumn we'll see which are producing the best blooms - the old plants or the new cuttings.

I'm giving the cuttings a bit more help than usual this year though - by covering them to create a more humid, and warmer atmosphere. I've never bothered before, but with the long, cold winter having delayed everything, I reckon they need all the help they can get. The DIY "propagators" are just cut-off mineral water bottle bottoms. They can either be pushed into the soil around the plant (if it's already in its growing position), or fitted over small pots.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gardening with kids

I planted some nasturtiums three days ago and the first is already sprouting. They seem to come up as soon as they touch the soil and, before you know it, are full adult plants demanding repotting.

Watching it burst through made me think back to when my son was little and he used to sow "his" seeds and grow them alongside mine. I always gave him the fun ones - the ones which would develop quickly, and be big and bold. I wanted to encourage him with little, instant and everyday results that would make him want to go on caring for the plant and checking on what had happened from one day to the next.

Was I right? When I explained this to someone else, who also had kids and was a keen gardener I got the snooty reply "I don't like to patronise my kids. I want them to understand that nature has its own times".

Well, it was a snooty reply - because this was a rather snooty person. But it stuck - because in theory I agree. But in practice I don't, because the perception of time of a five-year-old is not the same as that of an adult.

One of my earliest memories comes for the time when I was - I'm not sure how old. No more than four because I wasn't yet at school. Certainly young enough to still watch the TV programmes for the youngest children.

We didn't have a TV in those days, but my grandparents, who lived just up the road, had just bought one. (OK, OK - I'm showing my age here. Forget it.) And every day I was allowed to go to my grandparents to see the 15 minute slot on the BBC for the youngest children -
Watch with Mother (or in my case Watch with Nanny and Grandad).

There was a different programme every day - The Woodentops, Muffin the Mule, Bill and Ben. I loved them all, and could still sing you the theme tunes. But my favourite was Andy Pandy. And I remember going home one day after watching Andy Pandy (my real love was his best friend, Teddy) crying my eyes out. Because it was going to be so long, eons and eons, before the next episode was shown.

Now, Andy Pandy came on once a week. Every Tuesday. So I actually only had to wait seven days. But for a four-year-old's perception of time, seven days is an eternity.

I remember reading somewhere the theory that time perception is determined by the proportion of that time in relation to your age. So, if you are one year old, a week is 1/52 of your age. When you're twenty it's 1/1040 of your age, and when you're fifty two it's 1/2704 of your age. And you perceive it accordingly. When you're fifty a week flies in the blink of an eyelid. But when you're one you perceive it as lasting the same amount of time as a whole year for a fifty two year old.

Now, I've no idea how theoretically sound this idea is. But it certainly accords with my own differing perception of time as I've grown older - each year it seems to pass faster and faster.

So - when you're gardening with kids, keep it in mind. Asking them to wait two or three weeks for their seeds to sprout may be like having to wait months and months yourself. A real way of getting them to understand "nature's own times" might well be to give them the fast-sprouting, fast growing seeds. The wait will seem just as long to them as it does to you as you patiently wait for your petunias to come through.

Here are just a couple of things you can try now. They'll all grow happily in pots and you can start them off now on the windowsill and then transfer them outside (to the ground or larger pots) when they get bigger and the weather's better :

1. As I said, nasturtiums. They come through quickly, and grow quickly, developing large leaves and large flowers. Get the kids to measure them daily and calculate how much they've grown - great for maths practice.

2. Sunflowers - the same advantages. Try growing one for each member of the family. Let everybody have responsibility for their own - water, light, fertiliser etc - measure them regularly and record the results. Who can grow the tallest plant? Again, great for maths, but also for teaching the kids to take responsibility for other living things. If you have a large age range in the family, the littlest ones may need help of course. Maybe the oldest could remind and help the youngest.

3. Beans - if they have to stay in pots, use a dwarf variety. All the fast growing advantages of the others, and this time the child has the satisfaction of harvesting her/his own crop and "feeding the family".

4. Any of the above, but try an experiment. Let several plants sprout, then get the child to grow one giving it the water, fertiliser, light and temperature it needs. With all the others take away one of these conditions - take away the light from one, put one in the fridge, don't fertilise another, don't water the last. Each day record how large they've grown, how healthy they are. A great way of showing the kids how life needs certain conditions.

Well it is, if you can bear it. Have to say that the last was an experiment my son did at primary school. My heart bled for all those poor, deprived, doomed seedlings ...

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mad March

The weather last week was crazy. As forecast (see the Saturday post) it snowed. Not a lot here, but in areas not far from Milan, people were snowed in, and in the mountains they had record low temperatures for March : around -20°C (-4°F) if I remember correctly.

It didn't last long. A couple of days and we were back to bright blue skies and sunshine. But the temperatures have remained very, very strange. Yesterday it was 14°C (57°F) on the balcony at lunchtime. With -2°C (28°F) forecast for the night. Today it's been 16°C (61°F) but will drop to 1°C (33°F) tonight. That's a huge difference andI think I'm going to have some very confused plants

It's also meant that I've been holding back on sowing. Though one set of seedlings doesn't seem to have been at all phased by the cold weather. This winter, I made the mistake of leaving my chrysanthemum container underneath the bird feeder. It seems that this year I'm going to be harvesting a great crop of millet ...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Where do you keep your gardening magazines?

Where do you keep your gardening magazines? If you're anything like me you'll have been accumulating them for years. I don't subscribe to any one magazine in particular, but I do buy them fairly regularly. Throwing them away is out of the question (as you may have gathered from recent posts, throwing things away is not my forte) - you never know when the information might come in useful. And anyway, after a few years you've forgotten what they said and can happily read them again.

But if they're going to be useful, you need to be able to find the information that you want when you want it. How often have you desperately flipped through reams of magazine because you know that in there somewhere there's an article on the topic you need? Not a problem if you do subscribe - the magazine may publish an annual index, or even provide a fancy folder to keep them all in. But if you're an impulse buyer?

My solution is to put them all in large folders, filed not chronologically but by month. So that I have all the June issues together, all the November issues together, and so on regardless of year. And the folders get labelled and decorated with some pictures cut out of old seed catalogues, and popped onto my bookshelves.

Now I have to admit that the photo shows the folders from a while back. At that stage each folder covered three months. I've now arrived at the point of needing a separate folder for each month. But the principle is the same. And at the beginning of each month I can take down the folder and flip through all the magazines it contains looking for useful information for that month's gardening. Because if there's one thing that all gardening magazines have in common, it's that they tell you what you need to be doing that month. And it will often happen that a magazine from five or so years ago has an article on a plant that, at the time, I wasn't growing but which I want to introduce this year.

It doesn't completely solve the problem of indexing. But I know that if I'm looking for an article on Poinsettia, I'm far more likely to find it in the December issues than in June.

Month by month filing is, for me far more useful than chronological storage. At which point I can hear my husband snorting in the background : You mean it's a better option than leaving them all lying around the bedroom floor ..

But what about you? How do you store your gardening magazines?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Taming the Monster

When I'd shifted enough pots on the back balcony to give me room to move, another space hogger confronted me. My wild asparagus.

I've blogged about his history a couple of times. He self-seeded in one of the containers (goodness knows how) and then stayed apparently dormant for several years, growing no more than four or five short fronds while the root system developed. Until one year he exploded.

Two years ago I'd had enough, turfed him out of his pot and cut back the roots. Radically. That held him for a year, but last year he was back in full swing and again quadrupled in size.

So I thought I'd try another tack. It was time to enrol him in the marines. Because what's the first thing that happens when you join the marines ?

You get a haircut.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Perfect Pansy

Is this not the most perfect pansy you've ever seen in your life?

Monday, March 08, 2010

My Pet Hate

Work on cleaning up the back balcony has begun, and the first job had to be making enough space to move around. I knew that this had to be the year that I finally decided to throw away some of the plastic pots that had been accumulating in the cupboard - and recently overflowing out of it. Why? Because I hate throwing plastic away and for 17 years, since we moved in, have been keeping them to reuse. And of course, I have re-used them. However, it was getting to the point where I had enough to open a nursery - and no more space to store them. So out they went - well, half of them at least - off to the recycle bin.

But while I was clearing them out of the cupboard, I kept coming across something else. These ...

Plastic spray bottles. Nozzleless or with nozzles not working. Of course - because whenever have you bought a spray bottle whose nozzle worked for more than about three months? So you have to throw it away and get a new one. Because the makers couldn't possibly sell nozzles that work, could they? Or if that's too great a technological challenge, at least sell spare nozzles, so that you could keep the bottle and just fit a new one on. It drives me up the wall. Why do I absolutely have to buy a new bottle every time the nozzle stops working? Why doesn't every spray bottle come with five nozzles? Why can't I buy spare nozzles in packs of ten and keep the same bottle for ever? The amount of plastic saved would be enormous.

Yes of course, they go to the recycle bin too. But we all know that recycling isn't nearly as good an option as not throwing the stuff away in the first place.

Maybe it's just here. Maybe everywhere else in the world nozzles work for years. Or maybe your bottles always come with a large pack of spares. But I suspect not. I suspect profits might be seriously hit if we didn't have to throw the whole thing out every few months and buy a new one. Well, I for one would happily pay five times as much if the makers would just provide one that could be guaranteed to last five times as long. I mean - a nozzle. It's not really rocket science, now is it?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Snow is forecast ...

Again. With temperatures predicted to drop to -6°C (21°F). Just when I'd started crowing that we'd turned the corner and spring was on its way. But it was. Temperatures were up around 16°C (61°F), the new spring grass was bursting through, the magnolia was in bud, and I'd even seen the first Forsythia in flower.

Then yesterday at 4pm I came out of a seminar, where I'd been all day, and stopped dead in my tracks. There was bright, bright sunshine and a clear blue sky - but the temperature had plummeted to 2°C.

It's the same today, with the forecasts predicting snow between tomorrow and Tuesday.

Snow in March doesn't happen every year here, but neither is it particularly rare. I've found records from 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2005. It doesn't usually last long - there's even a saying Neve marzolina dura dalla sera alla mattina which translates as March snow lasts from the evening to the morning It loses a lot in the translation as you miss the rhythm and the rhyme. Maybe : In March it snows in the evening then goes. Read as da DA, da DA, da da DA da, da DA. But back to the plot ..

I've spent the past few weekends clearing up after the winter and starting to get seeds in. The front balcony is now looking pristine if a bit bare. But that will soon change. The corner by the living room doors is already full with the pansies and primroses I wrote about before, and wallflowers and bulbs which are coming on nicely.

A lot of the bulbs are from my London garden - they're just a selection of stuff that I dug up when I was clearing up last summer. As I didn't recognise them, I brought some back to plant here - to see what I'd get. Still not sure what's in the first pot here. The long leaves are possibly Snowflakes and in the middle there are some hyacinths. Very small though - I'm not expecting them to flower. The blue pot at the back has crocuses in front, which are now starting to bloom. All white so far - I wonder if that's chance or whether I've now got a London garden full of white crocuses? I hope to be there next week, so should find out. I don't know what the larger ones at the back are yet -we'll see.

This weekend should be dedicated to the back balcony - which is still in a dreadful mess, partially because my main method of clearing up the front was to shift all the rubbish to the back. But with temperatures at only 2°C, the idea of getting out there looks somewhat less attractive.

My seeds are all safe from the low temperatures as they're sitting happily indoors in their propagators. This is the time of year when my long-suffering husband starts to mutter that normal people have a bedroom, so why is it only us that have to sleep in a greenhouse? Most of them only went in last Sunday, but a few have already started to sprout. Here come the Morning Glory that Briana sent me when Bilbo came to stay.

The only advantage of the current weather is that we can see the Alps - unusual in Milan as the heavy smog generally obscures them, despite the fact that they're only about 30 miles away.

Heavy rain last week must have cleaned the air sufficiently to make them visible. The photos were taken from the roof of our building this morning.

Monday, March 01, 2010


Around about 5.45 pm on Saturday my neighbours were treated to a loud scream of anguish which echoed around the gardens surrounding the apartment blocks in our complex. And with so many blocks piled one upon the other, believe me - screams echo well.

I love wallflowers. I've got some coming on at the moment which should soon be in flower. But there are only fifteen or so of them. For next year I'm hoping for a more spectacular display.

Last summer I sowed some wallflower seeds far too late in the season for them to be big enough to flower this year. But they're hardy and they got through the winter with no problems. They'll grow all this year and be fine for next spring - just call them triennials. But as they seemed to be coming back into growth, I thought it was about time I took them out of the seed trays and potted them on.

Now here I have to confess. You know what they say about thinning out seedlings? Forget it. I can't kill anything. If it straggles up, as far as I'm concerned it gets a chance. As long as I don't inadvertently snap its roots off when I'm separating the seedlings out, into a pot of its own it goes.

I'd planted two rows in the seed tray - and ended up with seventy seedlings. And for an hour or so on Saturday afternoon I stood there happily teasing out the roots and replanting one by one in plug pots. By the time I finished it was getting dark, so I thought I'd better clear up and go in. And that's when it happened.

Now, there are those people who have high visual-spatial intelligence and then there are those of us who are somewhat challenged in that department. To put it mildly we're congenitally clumsy - though I'm sure that's no longer the politically correct expression. We're the ones who are always covered in burns because when we take things out of the oven, we misjudge the distance and brush our arms against the hot racks. We're the ones who need enough space for six articulated lorries in order to park a mini and who eventually give up driving because it's clear that sooner or later we'll kill someone. We're the ones who get beaten by six-year olds when playing Tetris. And we're the ones who drop things, spill things, break things ... You get the general idea.

So there I was with my seventy seedlings all neatly potted up. All I had to do was transfer them from the work space to the trays where they'd stay for a while. Now where had I put the trays? I turned around to look, caught the containers with my elbow, and in a split second swept the lot onto the floor.

In restrospect the neighbours were lucky that I only screamed. They could well have been treated with somewhat more graphic utterance, which probably wouldn't have reflected the English they learnt at school ...

So, in the rapidly deepening twilight, there I was scooping up seventy seedlings and the related potting compost, and starting all over again. Luckily there's a small light on the back balcony so even when it got really dark, I was at least able to see vaguely what I was doing.

I got them all back in except six which had snapped during the fall. So I now have sixty-four wallflowers all ready for flowering next year. OK, exaggerated on a small balcony. But so what? I said I love them, and I can always give them away. Anyone want to come and collect a couple of wallflower seedlings?

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