Friday, April 30, 2010

It's that time of year again ...

I posted a couple of years ago about Milan's addiction to sedum. This is the time of year when, wherever you are in the city, look up and you'll see yellow streaks lining the balcony railings. It almost seems to be an unwritten law that you have it growing on your balcony, even if for the rest of the year you don't have so much as a pelargonium growing out there.

I mean, look at this one. Not exactly overflowing with plants and containers. But out of the four containers that are there, three contain sedum.

Why is it so ubiquitous? Probably because it's almost impossible to kill the stuff. It was the only succulent on my balcony which survived the exceptionally cold temperatures we had this year, and despite the fact that I overwatered it pitifully when it was still far too cold to do so, it bounced back. Leaves dropped, others turned brown, and for a while it looked considerably shell-shocked - but back it bounced.

The only thing you can do with it is give it away. And this I think is the clue. for I have never, ever seen it on sale anywhere. But it's the pass-along plant par excellence. When it gets too large, just break off the stems, stick them in another pot of earth - and give them to your neighbour, smiling sweetly as if you're doing them the greatest kindness on earth while secretly chuckling to yourself that you've managed to halve your stock in one fell swoop and make it someone else's problem. Of course, she won't be able to kill it off either, so the following year she'll pass some along to her neighbour ...

And so it spreads inexorably, haunting the balconies of non-gardeners throughout the city. They'll scorch it all August, leaving it waterless while they're at the sea. They'll leave it to freeze all winter. But next spring, there it will be, proudly lining the balcony.

What type of sedum is it? No idea. I call it Sedum milanensis. And if that's not its name, it should be.

I have a love/hate relationship with the stuff. (As I said above, I have my obligatory container. Two in fact. Guess how I got them ?) For most of the year it just sits there, looking boring, grey and unattractive. And then for a couple of weeks in April, it explodes and it's glorious. And not only do I enjoy my own but I'm also fascinated by looking up and seeing all the yellow-lined balconies. Why else do you think this is the second post on the same topic in three years?

So hooray for the sedum. If only because it encourages non-gardeners to have at least one plant on their balconies, to my mind it's earned its place on mine.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Potting on ...

Back at the beginning of March I wrote about pricking out my wallflower seedlings and potting them up as plug plants. This is what they looked like then ...

After about a month it was clear that they needed potting on. So I duly transferred them. In theory they should all have gone into 3" pots, but there were over sixty of them, and sixty 3" pots would have taken up more space on the balcony than I had to spare. So about twenty of them went into their own pots while the others went straight into the final containers where they'll grow till they flower next spring.

Would it make a difference? All the gardening books and experts are stern about it : never give a young plant more space than it needs at that moment, or it will just put down roots and "forget" to develop above ground.

But that wasn't the only one of gardening's ten commandments that I managed to break. When I'd transferred almost all of them, I ran out of fresh soil. I wanted to finish, so I just used a container that still had last year's soil in it. How much difference would that make?

Well, here are the results. First the container with fresh soil...

Happy, healthy little plants, coming on well in comparison to their clearly deprived friends in the container with old soil. Most of them haven't made it at all, while the rest remain small and weedy. The self seeded sunflower in there with them doesn't look too happy either ...

But then there are the plants in the 3" pots. Bear in mind that all of these plants were approximately the same size when I moved them a month or so ago.

The "potted" plants are more than twice the size even of those in the first container.

Will it make a difference to the display next year? The jury's going to have to stay out till next April before we can get a verdict on that one. The ones in the container with the poor soil are clearly going to need some tender loving care. Transplanting to new soil is the obvious answer, but as I've got so many I thought I'd try an experiment and see to what extent I can "remediate" with fertiliser. When you garden on a balcony in the middle of a city, disposing of old soil is a huge headache, and if you can re-use it, it's one less problem to worry about. We'll see ...

As for the difference between those in the container with good soil and those in the pots, I suspect that there'll be time for things to even out. Or there's even the possibility that superior root development will give the container plants the edge in the long run. Again, we'll see.

One thing is clear however. Had these been annuals rather than biennials, it would have made a huge difference - and meant a much earlier flowering period. From now on, any annuals that I grow from seed will definitely get "potted".

Meanwhile, the wallflowers from last year have been giving a wonderful display. Next year's plants will be a mix of the same browny-yellow ones as are here, plus a new red variety. I'm in two minds about it - for me, wallflowers are brown and yellow. But yet again, we'll see...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bare Trees, Blue Sky

I have always been fascinated by the sight of bare branches against a blue sky. I took my first photo, of a silver birch, in Finland in the January of 1975. It had been a long dark winter up till then. And then suddenly, the snow came down, the sun came out, and there was light again.

Now I have a silver birch in my London garden and it's April. But the fascination remains. These photos were taken ten days ago - in my garden (the silver birch and the prunus) and across my neighbour's garden (the apple and pear trees) towards the park beyond (the poplars).

The prunus was in bud but not quite in flower. It probably is by now. I really hoped I'd see it blooming.

The silver birch towards the house ...

... and towards the park.

It's a long time since I took part in Skywatch Friday, but I think these photos probably qualify. But click here to see the others participating this week. Of those up when I posted my favourite are the superb bird photos of by Klaus in Florida. Check them out.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The garden of the colour blind

Imagine a world without colour. Imagine a garden without colour. Partial colour-blindness is fairly common - for example the red-green colour blindness that affects about one in twenty men. But what would it be like not to be able to see colour at all? Something, perhaps, like these photos.

The first day I was in England, I took photos of the garden intending to use them in a couple of posts. But I must have done something weird with the camera settings, because they came out in shades of grey with only the odd coloured tint.

The neurologist
Oliver Sacks' (remember Robin Williams and Robert de Niro in the film Awakenings?) describes the experience of total colour-blindness in one of his books. He talks about a visit to an island in the South Pacific where the population is congenitally colour blind, as well as also mentioning the experience of one of his patients who had lost colour vision after a car accident which damaged part of his brain. He says that this patient , "... seemed to have lost the ability not only to see colour but also to imagine or remember it, even to dream of it... (He) complained of his world feeling impoverished, grotesque, abnormal - his art, his food, even his wife looked "leaden" to him."

Do these photos give some idea what it would be like? Knock out the suggestions of yellow and blue, and they are without doubt "leaden". Not black and white - just a grisly shade of grey.

The book is worth reading. Not only for the account of the colour blind island, but also for Sacks account of the cycads on the island of Guam.

Sacks had been a collector of
Cycads since he was a child, and jumped at the chance to visit an island which was full of them, but also home to a neurological disorder called lytico-bodig - apparently caused by the poisonous effects of the plant. Cycads, in case you're not familiar with them, are plants which have been around for millions of years. They're the living dinosaurs of the plant world. Distantly related to palms and ferns, they grow in tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world where they are widely used as a food source, despite the fact that they are potent neuro-toxins, producing symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease. (If you've got any in your garden, don't be tempted to chomp on the plant as a snack.) Though all over the world people had apparently developed ways of detoxifying the plant, in Guam long-term effects seemed to remain. The rest is a detective story, told with Sacks usual humanity and compassion for the sufferers of the diseases he describes. It's a detective story with no solution, but well worth reading both for the botantical and the neurological details.

But back to colour blindness. What would it be like to garden, seeing only this? Sacks describes the reactions of Knut Nordby, a colour-blind scientist who accompanied him, and of James, one of the islanders :

Knut was fascinated by ... the richness of the vegetation, which he saw quite clearly, perhaps more clearly than the rest of us. For us, as colour-normals, it was was at first just a confusion of greens, whereas to Knut it was a polyphony of brightnesses, tonalities, shapes and textures, easily identified and distinguished from each other. He mentioned this to James who said it was the same for him and all the other achromatopes on the island - none of them had any difficulty distinguishing the plants on the island....

"But what about bananas..." Bob asked... " How can you tell when a banana is ripe ...?"

James' answer was to go to a banana tree and to come back with a carefully selected, bright green banana for Bob.

Bob peeled it; it peeled easily to his surprise. He took a small bite of it, gingerly; then devoured the rest.

"You see," said James, "We don't just go by colour. We look, we feel, we smell, we know - we take everything into consideration, and you just take colour!"

From : Oliver Sacks, The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island Picador

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Good News, The Bad News, The Borage ...

Haven't been blogging much recently because I've been too busy gardening. First a week getting the back balcony clean and tidy, and seeds sown ready for summer. And then a week in the UK, sorting out my London garden.

Now, if you've been following my vain attempts to keep the garden decent at a distance of 600 miles, you'll know that I've spent the last two summers battling with borage. When I left last autumn, I'd spent two months digging out taproots nearly as thick as my wrist. I cleared the garden, but I knew it wasn't the end of the story. Not only does borage self seed like crazy, but if you don't dig out every last inch of root, it just bounces straight back. And I knew that I hadn't. So the bad news is that when I got back, this is what confronted me ...

It was clear that another week of digging was ahead. Except that you try sitting at a computer for six months and then decide to spend all day digging. Balcony garden may be good for the soul, but the exercise that you get when coping with a real garden is sadly lacking.

Anyway, I did what my back would allow and managed to clear and plant several flower beds, as well as cutting the grass and the hedge and deadheading the hydrangeas. And the good news was that when I started, I found most of the borage didn't come from old taproots at all. It was from last season's seed - and came out of the ground like butter. Weeding in the spring when the soil is moist is also a different experience from doing it in the summer when the ground is baked hard. Even those plants which did have well-established taproots were far easier to deal with.

But back to the bad news. This year it wasn't just the borage. There were three other invasive plants covering the garden. One was this ...

In one of my posts last summer I remember saying that the garden was filled with hundreds of tiny bulbs which I couldn't identify. I even collected them carefully and replanted them in clumps. Well there they are, valiantly competing with the borage to swamp the flower beds, destroy the lawn and, in general, dominate the garden.

What are they? No idea. Wouldn't mind if they showed signs of flowering, but only one in about a thousand seems to be in bud. Which leaves 999 per square foot just putting out straggly, unattractive leaves. I yanked them all out as I cleared the beds, but much of the garden is still swamped. However, at least they're providing ground cover for the parts I didn't get round to.

There are some bulbs though which I've been quite happy to leave. Little clumps of muscari are dotting the garden, together with some tall, broad leaved plants which aren't flowering and which I can't name. But I've seen them flowering in a neighbour's garden and they're lovely. I think they're Snowflake, either Leucojum vernum or, as they're not yet in flower, possibly Leucojum aestivum. If so, they should be flowering by the time I next go back - I've planned another trip in early May - so I should see.

Some tulips are also in bud, and the daffodils which I planted last year have been glorious. The roses and lavender which I put in are also coming on well. More good news.

And back to the bad. There's a weed in the garden which I've never seen there before - but which is quickly taking over. Horrendous stuff - but luckily fairly easy to pull up. This is the compost heap...

Occasionally shy little flowers attempt to poke their way through ...

The third invasive plant is good news, however. Last summer I posted asking if anyone recognised a plant which was gradually creeping over the lawn and flower beds. It had clearly flowered in the spring because it was full of seed pods, but I had no idea what it was. Several people suggested violets, but I said no, I'd already thought of that and rejected it because the leaves were too pale. But what do we have here ...

Bright green leaves and little violets everywhere. So humble apologies to Disquina, Wendy and Jan - you were right all along.

So, it was a week of weeding. I did about a sixth of the garden thoroughly, hoed a bit more where baby borage seedlings were sprouting, and, on the last day, gave up and sprayed the rest with weedkiller. I'll be back in a month to see if it had any effect. But I suspect the borage may well have just lapped it up ...

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