Sunday, May 30, 2010

You know it's summer when ...

You know it's summer when ...

- the wallflowers are only still there because you want to save the seeds.

- however long you spend deadheading the surfinia, when you turn round two minutes later there are more to do.

- you spot the first flowers on your tomato plants.

- you suddenly realise you're under attack.

- plants wilt pitifully under the midday sun...

... and the hot humid afternoons are punctuated by low growls of thunder and sudden, torrential rain.

Summer has arrived. Temperatures last week were up to about 28-29°C (82-84°F) on a couple of days, and though it's now down to about 23°/24° (73-75°F - average for the time of year) it already feels as if the humidity is starting to rise - 61% this evening. Not a problem yet, but I've already warned the family that the annual "oven strike" is about to start - no more roast dinners till the autumn. It's been a shock - two weeks ago I was saying that we still had the heating on and it was teeming with rain. Well, it still is - but we've changed from constant cold, wet downpours to hot, humid storms. Early this year - they're par for the course in June and July, but less so in May. Oh well, at least no-one's going to be worying about water shortages this year ...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's time to stop ...

... your chrysanthemums.

Back in March I talked about the chrysanthemum cuttings I'd taken, and how I wanted to see whether, as all the books told me, cuttings planted anew would give a better show than if I just left them on the plant. Here they were back then - three cuttings sheltered between the two mother plants.

And here they are now.

So far no contest. In terms of growth the old plants are far outstripping the babies. But of course there's plenty of time yet before they flower. So far the new plants must have been putting most of their energy into developing roots. So we still need to wait and see...

They do need attention though. As you can see from this one in an individual pot, what growth there has been is all upward.

Now if you want large, single blooms, that's fine. But if you'd prefer a mass of smaller ones, then you need to "stop" the plant - that is, pinch out the central growing tip so that side shoots will form and, eventually, flower.

If you really get into it, stopping is an art form all of its own. Should it be done once or twice? When exactly? How many side shoots should be encouraged to develop? It depends where you live, what you want the blooms for, even what cultivar you've got. Have a look at this site for an idea, but believe me - whole books have been written on the subject.

Luckily, unless you're trying to produce blooms for show purposes, you can be much more cavalier about it. I stop mine once when they get to about six inches in height, some time in May, and then let them get on with it. And the actual pinching out is easy. See the new little leaves growing at the top of the stem ?

Gone ....

And come November, they'll be bursting with blooms.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I had clear ideas for the balcony this year. It was going to be colour themed, with in-your-face containers of orange and purple muted by others of yellow and pale lilac broken up by white. Sunflowers were going to tower above calendula, zinnia and marigolds interspersed by surfinias, petunias and daisies with big, yellow centres and white petals. Black-eyed Susans were to twine their way up the canes behind. In the early part of the season, cheeky little violet pansies would poke through the foliage, to be replaced later by white and purple verbena.

And this year, I was determined. There was going to be no pink.

So where did these come from?

I was seduced. As I am every year. When I got to the supermarket and found these amazing Surfinia, Impatiens (Busy Lizzie) and New Guinea Impatiens in exactly the same amazing shade of deep pink - well, I succumbed weak-kneed.

I think I'm going to have to give up pretending I don't like pink. It's true, it's difficult to pair with other colours - but purple works fine, as these pelargoniums that I've got on the office balcony show. The purple pansies look great between the larger plants. And then, there's always white - which goes fine with everything.

And it's just as well I succumbed. because all the rest - most of which I've grown from seed - is way behind schedule. We've had the coldest, wettest May I ever remember. It started pouring down torrentially on May 3rd, and has barely stopped since. We've had roads flooding, trees down, rivers overflowing and at one point 100mm of rain in just three hours not far outside the city. Temperatures have been down to 12/14°C (53-57°F), and the heating has had to be turned on again - something I've never known happen in May. Needless to say it's had a huge impact on agriculture - I read one report saying that a third of the area devoted to sweet corn (a major crop in this area) would have to be completely resown and that potato production was 40% down on usual.

And it's not been much better on the balcony. Seedlings which should by now be bursting out in growth are still just sat there, peering at me through the grey, cloudy gloom, as if to say you want us to grow at these temperatures ?? And seeds planted in April haven't germinated at all.

There is one advantage. The red spider mite must be loathing every minute of it. Two years ago they'd hit by May 12th. Last year it was May 20th. But this year I suspect we'll have a bit of a respite. Thank you, rain. Thank you.

Anyway, while I'm waiting for the rest, I've turned to pink. But whatever the intended colour scheme, there is one pink plant that I'd never be without - my Lychnis coronaria (Rose campion). I grew it from seed which I saved from my London garden several years ago, and it's bloomed regularly on the balcony ever since. I love the grey-green foliage and the stark contrast it presents with the flowers. This year (and I'm not sure why) it's suddenly grown exponentially into an enormous plant. And that in a container on the back balcony where I've had little success with other plants. Note the one weedy sweet pea that's come up behind it - despite the fact that I sowed liberally. But the lychnis is thriving - it's even dwarfing the hollyhock beside it.

I've got a lot of Lychnis seedlings coming on, and the plan is to fill that container with them. It would be nice to find a climber that would grow up the back though, to set them off.

So here's to pink. I offer it for this year's May Garden Blogger's Bloom Day. And long may it grace the balcony.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


It's not Chelsea, but Milan does have a flower show of its own in May. Called Orticola. Well, OK, not really a flower show, more a trade fair. There's no competitive element, and very little going on other than nurseries and other garden related organisations displaying and selling their products. I did see one demonstration of bouquet making, and there were a couple of areas dedicated to kids, but apart from that it was "just" commercial stands.

Which didn't stop me having to queue for fifteen minutes to pay my 7€ entrance fee to get in. Half of north Italy seemed to be there - making for a bit of a crush in the relatively small area dedicated to the 130 stands inside. I'm still not exactly clear about why I should need to pay for the privilege of having people sell me plants, but I stood dutifully in line to do so.

And, mean streak aside, it was worth it. I saw plants that I'd never be able to find in our local garden centre - and, mercifully, very few that I would. A couple of stands had stock balcony plants -pelargoniums, tagetes, surfinia etc - but always unusual varieties. And the prices were very, very reasonable, making me regret the fact that I'd been terribly strong when I was still at home and taken money out of my purse rather than putting it in... The easiest way to resist temptation, I thought.

Anyway, I wandered around going oooh and aah for a couple of hours. There were a lot of stands dedicated to one plant only. The hydrangeas in the top photo were probably my favourite, while the azaleas below were predictably "in your face"...

And there was even an entire stand dedicated to nasturtiums ...

Or you might fancy some peonies ..

.. great for winding round the maypole. Or is this supposed to be some sort of bridal bower?

There were some more original stands though. If you fancy having chickens in the back garden but are afraid the neighbours will complain, how about these ...

And if you keep a dog outside, how about a green roof for his kennel?

The same stand also had an amazing green wall - unfortunately, it was so amazing that it was surrounded by hordes of people, making it really difficult to get a decent photo.

But I think the stand that wowed me the most was this one, dedicated to water features. Don't know how much luck they had in selling - with the mosquitoes we have here, no-one in their right minds would want a water feature in their garden. But, at the back of the stand, was the most amazing plant - Gunnera mannicata. Not, sadly, right for the balcony. But I stood and looked at it for a long time. Double click on the photo to understand better why it grabbed my attention.

So what did I buy? Well, I was very restrained (apart from not taking very much money, I also had to carry them home on the bus). But I did come away with a couple of salvia faracinea - my attempts to grow them from seed failed miserably this year - two astilbes, one white and one pink, and a heuchera. Not bad for 25€.

And then there's always the catalogue. It has the web addresses of all the exhibitors in it. And a lot of them seem to sell on-line ... tee hee :)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Companion Planting

Up to this year, I've always kept my three balconies separate as far as use was concerned. At home the front balcony (the one I look out on and sit on) was for plants in flower, while the back was the herb garden (just outside the kitchen door) and the nursery where I had the seedlings and the cuttings, plus the perennials not currently flowering - chrysanthemums in the spring and summer for instance. Then, my office balcony had a few flowers right in front of the window, but tucked away around the corner (well out of sight of my clients - now why?) was my vegetable garden, with its beans and courgettes and tomatoes.

This year though, I've changed. Nine times out of ten in the past, the veg and the herbs didn't make it - they were decimated by whitefly and red spider mite before they came anywhere near harvest. So this year I've changed tack - I'm companion planting.

The idea behind companion planting is simple. Growing certain plants near others improves the chances of the second group doing well. Why? Several reasons ...

Firstly, some plants will protect others from pests, diseases and environmental factors. So if you pop those in amongst others which are susceptible to those problems, they'll have some degree of protection. So here for example, I've got marigolds next to my tomatoes. Marigolds give off a smell which whitefly can't abide. So in avoiding the marigolds, they'll also have to stay away from the tomatoes. At the same time, I've got peppers planted by the tomatoes. The strong sun hasn't hit here yet this year, but when it does, the tomatoes will shelter them and provide humidity. There's some garlic in there too, as there is around my roses, to repel aphids.

Then there are plants which are supposed to benefit the growth and flavour of others - like basil for tomatoes. That's in there too but it's not quite big enough to see in the photo. A pity that you can't grow mozzarella - I'd have a complete caprese in one container :)

Some plants will attract beneficial insects. For example, marigolds (yes, they crop up all the time) attract hoverflies , and hoverfly larvae like to munch away on aphids.

And finally, there are the sacrificial plants. This one's sad. You put in something that you know is irresistible to a particular pest, in the hope that it will leave the other plants, which you want to save, alone. There are a couple of nasturtiums tucked in with the roses too to attract aphids.

Why bother? Because every pest that can be deterred with another plant is one that doesn't have to be squirted with some foul, polluting chemical.

It's not all good news of course. Some of the worst pests don't seem to respond to companion planting at all - and, as every summer, my big fear is red spider mite. I've yet to find a plant that will repel it, and all those marigolds are actually going to attract it. And there's always the fear that if you attract them to sacrificial plants, they'll spread. Oh, my poor tomatoes.

And then there are the incompatibles. Just as some plants seem to like being together,and thrive, others seem to hate each other and do badly. Keep your onions away from your peas and beans for example and your tomatoes away from your potatoes. Not always easy if you're gardening in a small space like a balcony.

So what do you grow with what and what should you avoid planting together? You'll find loads of lists on the web - try these Google searches for instance Companion plants and Companion planting. Or if you have a specific plant in mind, just add it to the search box.

But whatever you search for, if you do find a plant that will repel the dreaded RSM, please, please let me know ...

Saturday, May 01, 2010


There's a part of me that would kill for this balcony ...

I love wisteria. And my dream is an old house in the country with wisteria growing up the walls. But despite that, I don't think that I shall be introducing it here.

First of all because it's not really a balcony plant. Even here it's not really growing on the balcony - it's been planted in the garden and then trained up.

It must have been planted when the house was built, given the size of it and the width of the trunk.

It's been trained up carefully, and the branches have then been supported under and along the balconies themselves.

Wisteria can be planted in containers - but the container plus the vine might soon get too heavy for the balcony. If you're balcony gardening and intend to use large containers, it's worth finding out how much weight your balcony can support - according to my architect husband, on the type of balcony we have here it's usually around 250-300 kilograms per square foot. Remember though that you need to allow for the weight of the people who might be standing on the balcony too. It's not just the containers.

Then there's the problem of time. Wisteria takes up to 20 years to flower if grown from seed and, some sites suggest, 4-5 or more if grown from cuttings. Even if you've got the patience to wait, space limitations on a balcony mean you might not want to have a non-flowering plant hanging around that long.

And even when it does start, you'll have a superb display for a couple of weeks in the spring and then all the balcony space taken up for the rest of the year. I'm not sure it's worth it.

It seems to me there are two possibilities - firstly to train it as a standard. The
RHS site explains how. It will still reach small tree size, but as long as your balcony can take that much weight, it should solve the space problem.

Or it can be grown as a bonsai. Now I've never been really into bonsais. It's always seemed too much like foot-binding to me. but in this case I have to say I'd be sorely tempted ...

Meanwhile I'm just going to take a short walk up the road at the end of April each year, and stand and gaze at this one. I think it deserves a prize for brightening up the city.

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