Monday, August 30, 2010


Now that the summer is showing signs of waning and the city is cooling down, I've been venturing out again occasionally for a walk. We were walking along the Martesana canal (1) last week, and talking about the ducks and moorhens, which seem to be more plentiful than usual this year, when someone said to us : Excuse me but do you know what that animal over there is?

Animal? On the Martesana? Apart from the occasional infestation of rats which the Council soon steps in to deal with, I've never seen any sign of wildlife on the canal. But yes, there they were - two little Coypu (2) happily going about their business on the far bank.

The coypu (Myocastor coypus)is widespread in Europe. A relative of the beaver, they're originally native to S. America, but are bred for their fur (and sometimes their meat, which is very low in cholesterol). Animals which have escaped from the fur farms have gradually colonised the continent. They are usually considered a pest - here in the north of Italy for the damage they do to the rice crops (Lombardy is the most important rice producing area in Europe) - but elsewhere for a range of reasons ranging from the destruction of other crops such as sugar beet, to the damage their burrow do to river banks, to the threat they pose to other species because of their impact on the environment (3).

But I'd never seen them, or even heard of them, in Milan. And I'd never noticed them on the Martesana before. True, I'd not been there very much for a couple of years - the canal path was closed while they built a new railway bridge for the high speed lines and, as always what was meant to take a matter of months went on .. and on... and on.

A quick bit of research on the net solved the mystery. It's all the fault of the recession.

When the recession hit, people stopped buying fur coats (at least one positive result, then). And rather than pay to have the animals put down, the fur farms often just released them. A few found their way to the Martesana and the population has been steadily increasing ever since.

And wow, has it been increasing. From nothing two years ago, the canal is now overrun by them. We didn't notice that day, but as I didn't have my camera with me (you never do when you want it, do you?) we went back the next day to try and get some pictures. Not that I had much hope - I was convinced that they'd have disappeared.

No way - as we walked down the canal, I estimate that we saw a pair every three or four hundred yards - and we walked for about two hours. I was amazed at just how quickly they'd established themselves.

So there you go - my London garden has its urban foxes, and here in Milan I've got coypu in the back yard. Almost like living in the country.


The Martesana Canal
Global Invasive Species Database

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Growing Avocados

This summer, I've been growing avocados. Not a great challenge - they're dead easy. The question is, whether they're worth it.

Avocados are a rain forest plant. They've evolved to survive as seedlings under a canopy of leaves which blocks out the light. How do they manage? By putting all their energy in to growing as tall as possible as quickly as possible to reach the light. Result - a tall, spindly plant with a long thin stem and a cluster of large leaves at the top. Not desperately attractive as a houseplant or balcony plant. I've had them before and, quite honestly, they ended up looking dreadful.

But I thought I'd see that I'd try again and see if I could keep them lower and bushier. How ? First of all by making sure they have plenty of light, so they don't feel the need to become ganglier than necessary. But I've started off two pots, and they're each going to get slightly different treatment.

Pot number one (top photo) contains seeds that were started off at different times - the tallest went in at the beginning of the summer, the last one yesterday. Starting from now with the two tallest, I shall pinch out the growing tips to encourage them to spread. And I shall start pinching when each one is slightly smaller than the one ahead of it. That way I'm hoping to get bushy growth at different levels - the lower ones masking the spindly trunks of those which are taller. Well, that's the theory...

Pot number two has three seeds. They've just gone in, and as they grow I shall braid the trunks just as you often see done with Ficus benjamin. I'm hoping they'll eventually fuse together (as Ficus benjamin does). But in any case, the effect should be less height (because each trunk has been wound around the others), an apparently thicker "single" central trunk, and a mass of leaves on top. Again, that's the theory. While I can find plenty of advice on growing avocados on the web, and also plenty of advice on braiding other trees, no-one seems to have thought of putting the two together. Or perhaps they have and it just doesn't work. We shall see ...

If you want to grow them, use a fresh seed - plant it almost as soon as you eat the fruit. Let the brown outer coat dry and peel it off. Then just pop the seed into some fertile soil, broad side down and with its nose just showing above the soil level. Keep the seeds moist (not soggy) and wait. Forget all that stuff about sticking toothpicks into them and suspending them over water - would you like toothpicks pushed into your tenderer parts? Just plant them in the pots and keep them warm - I've seen around 20°C (70°F) recommended, but mine have zoomed up this year in temps of around 27°-35°C (77°-90°F). They are rainforest plants, after all.

Then you need to be be patient. It will seem for the first month or so that nothing's happening. Not true - they're developing long thick roots. This is one that I pulled up yesterday because after waiting for weeks and just seeing it get drier and harder, I did decide it had died. But you can see that a long root had already formed before it gave up.

So wait. And then, sometime in the second month, you'll see that the top of the seed has split, and very soon the stem and the first leaves will be poking through. And growing at a rate of knots. Keep them moist (but again, never waterlogged) and feed regularly with a fertiliser containing balanced nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and also zinc.

Size can also be controlled by trimming the roots annually and keeping them in a small pot, but the size of the leaves means that they're not really suitable for bonsai treatment. Huge leaves on a tiny tree would just look daft. There are dwarf varieties, but I don't think you're likely to find them in your local supermarket.

Avocados are not hardy. Once the temperature drops below 7°C (45°F) they need to come inside - which may become a problem if they do get really big. Cold may also kill the seeds too, so don't store the fruit in the fridge before you plant.

But then, you wouldn't be silly enough to put fruit in the fridge and destroy all the vitamins anyway, would you? And avocado has lots - it contains vitamins A, some of the B group, C and E and is also full of minerals : it has three times more potassium than a banana, weight for weight, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. And despite it's high fat content, it's mostly mono-unsaturated fats and is low in cholesterol. (1) What more do you want?

Sadly, though, the only avocados you get to eat as a result of growing them may be the ones you buy in order to get the seeds. Sources differ as to how long it takes a tree grown from seed to bear fruit - around ten years seems to be the average estimate (2), but some websites put it at as long as twenty. Don't think our local supermarket need feel too threatened ...


1. The California Avocado Commission
2. Flower and Garden Tips

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Feeding the Foxes

I hadn't been home in London for ten minutes last month when one of the local foxes came to visit. I'd gone out to see how the garden was and we came face to face as I turned around the hebe bush. He ran off about twenty yards to the compost heap, and then looked back over his shoulder with a look that quite clearly said What are YOU doing in MY garden? before disappearing into the park behind the house.

He looked a bit scraggy, and so for the ten days that I was there I put some dog food out each evening at about the same time.

I've blogged before about
whether it's a good idea to feed urban foxes, and I think if I was there permanently my answer would be no. Not regularly anyway. However, when I'm visiting I admit that I can't resist the temptation of watching them every evening.

Not that it's that easy to feed foxes. In fact, you have to be prepared for quite a challenge. The first bit's easy - you just wait till evening, plonk the food down and go inside to wait at the bedroom window, where you can see but not be seen, camera at the ready. And then the fun starts...

First you have to chase off all the neighbourhood cats and convince them that they really don't want to eat your scraps, or dog food, or whatever it is you've put out that evening, and that there's bound to be something much nicer waiting for them at home. By the time you've done that, you've run downstairs to the garden at least five times. But getting rid of them just means the coast is now clear for the heavy mob to move in...

And before long word has got round the whole neighbourhood that there's a party on. Gatecrashers arrive from all directions...

However, finally, the dog fox arrives. He eats precisely half of what's there and then leaves, peeing on your roses as he goes (gee thanks). Sainsbury's dog food not good enough for him?

No - he's just left half for the vixen, who arrives ten minutes later. How do I know it's not just the dog fox just come back? Look at the tails. And how do I know which is the dog fox and which the vixen? I told you - the dog fox pees on the roses...

And who's this? One of the young maybe? Seems in considerably better form than his father - look at that nice glossy coat. Though, in fact, all of them look much healthier than in previous years. Perhaps I'm not the only one in the neighbourhood who invests in Sainsbury's dog food when they haven't got a dog ...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It's been a long, hot summer...

It's been a long summer. July was unbearably hot and humid - well, unbearable for me anyway. I have naturally low blood pressure, and in the summer here it nose-dives to somewhere around my ankles. I just wilt. My husband, who has the opposite problem, suddenly perks up. Ah well, you can't please all of the people all of the time...

I finally managed to escape to England for a fortnight, hoping for a cooler climate and expecting to find the garden overgrown again.

But no. The heat they'd had there too meant that the grass had hardly grown and the weeds were nothing like when I'd gone back in April. There was still plenty to do - it took me a day's work to trim the hedge, and there's still borage to fight against - but even there I think I'm winning. Almost all of it seemed to be this year's growth, and relatively easy to pull up. Still the odd plant growing off long, thick taproots, but after two years fighting, I'm gradually getting somewhere. I've managed to stop it going to seed this year too, which will help - though I have few illusions. There must be enough seeds scattered around from past years to last for eternity. But all in all it wasn't bad. It's not going to make garden of the year, but neither does it look totally neglected any more. The hebe was wonderful - and, I'm pleased to say, full of butterflies - and the hydrangeas were as wonderful as ever.

Some of the things I'd planted last year and this spring were in bloom too - the lavender is doing really well, some of the nasturtium seeds I'd scattered had come up, and there were marigolds and petunias blooming their heads off all over the place. I even managed to harvest a handful of runner beans to bring back. Not bad for a garden left almost entirely to its own devices.

Back on the balcony in Milan though, its been a different story. Hardly anything seems to have done well this year, no matter how much tender loving care it's received. The pelargoniums ar fine - there's still been no sign of the Geranium Bronze Butterfly this year - and the plumbago has been pretty, but there have been years when we've had far more flowers and much larger blooms ....

And as for the rest... Even the Four o'clocks (Mirabilis Jalapa) have been sick and weedy, and they're usually a stalwart. I noticed something was wrong quite early on. I'd planted a lot of seeds, but very few came up - unusual for a plant which tends to be invasive. And those which did looked thin and weedy. And then, a couple of weeks ago I noticed that they'd been attacked by red spider mite - unheard of. If there's a plant which I've always said didn't succumb to pests, is was the Four o'clocks - the main reason I grow them is because they're still there when everything else has been killed off. They're currently still hanging on, but by now they should be in flower, and there's not so much as a bud.

The seeds I'd planted were some that I'd collected last summer. They came from vigorous, healthy plants and I was expecting a great display. It was a lemony-yellow variety which I'd never seen before, and very attractive - much more so that the pinky ones I've grown in the past. I didn't plant any of those this year, and now regret it - because the only plant I do have in flower is one which self-seeded from last year's plants. And yes, he's doing well - but looking a bit sad all on his own in his pot. Four o'clocks really need to be planted in clumps to be really impressive.

After the first week or so, August cooled down and most days we now have pleasantly warm temperatures in the mid-twenties, going up to twenty nine or thirty occasionally, but never over. Like the balcony, I'm slowly feeling less wilted and getting back to real life. And to work, and to blogging. I've just not had the energy for the last couple of months. I have gone on taking photos though, and if I can claw back enough enthusiasm to get them written, posts should be appearing regularly from now on. Fingers crossed ....

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