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.

Monday, September 06, 2010

How do you water your plants when you're on holiday?

If you garden on a balcony where the rain never reaches, going on holiday means you have to find some way of getting water to the plants when you're gone. There are lots of possibilities - get a plant sitter, buy those special gels that dissolve into the soil providing moisture, get an automatic watering system - but they've all got disadvantages.

Plant sitters first of all. Unless they're really gardeners, they tend to overwater - so you come back to drowned plants sitting in saucers of water. I know - I've tried that one. And unless they're friends or relatives who you can do the same for while they're away, you have to pay them. And that can work out expensive.

So do the gels. They work - I've used them in the past. But at €3 a tub, they're really only an option if you have the odd houseplant. I worked out that I'd need seventy of them to do the whole balcony...

Then there are those systems where you have a water container with capillary matting or tubes running into the pots. Again, less feasible if you have a lot of plants spread out over three long balconies as I do.

Then this year I found these. Ceramic spikes that fit into an ordinary mineral water bottle. Turn them upside down and the water slowly permeates through. I bought a couple, and they do work - on my "test run" I gave the plants no other water for ten days, with temperatures between 25-30°C (77-86°F) each day. They were fine, and the bottle was still a third full at the end. So they could easily have gone on for a fortnight.

But again they're hideously expensive - €7 for two, and I needed seventy. So I tried Amazon and found something similar (though not quite so classy). Plastic spikes that release the water drip by drip.

They're still not giving them away. But unlike the gels, you've only got to buy them once, and can reuse them again and again. Which means that the initial outlay is a bit less painful to contemplate.

The only real disadvantage if you want to use them in quantity, is that you have to save and store bottles for months before you leave. We were getting to the point that every time you opened a cupboard a score of plastic bottles would fall out...

When I went on holiday, the balcony looked as if I was running a bottle farm. But who cares - I wasn't there to look at it.

If you want to try them...

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Tree of Heaven ... or Hell?

I love this tree, particularly at this time of year when the red seed pods glow against the green of the leaves. This one is growing on the canal close to home. But wherever you are in this area you don't have to look far to find it. Usually though it looks like this...

It is one of the most invasive plants I know of. It seeds itself everywhere - including in the containers on the balcony. I pull out two or three every year. And as soon as a piece of ground is left undisturbed for aseason, up pop swathes of the young trees. Our local railway line is lines with them on both sides of the track, not a centimetre of space between them.

What are they? Ailanthus altissima, also known as Swingle or the Tree of Heaven - a reference to its height, which can reach 25m. But for anyone trying to keep it from taking over their land, a more appropriate name would probably be the Tree of Hell.

Other plants must think so too. They don't have a chance - it not only reproduces so rapidly because of the huge numbers of seeds produced, but also because it produces a chemical which inhibits the growth of other plants (1). Some trees just don't play fair.

If you've been looking at the photos and thinking But isn't that some sort of sumac? No, it isn't. Whilst the leaves look very similar, they are actually two different species. Not sure what you've got? Well, they say that if you break of a leaf of ailanthus, it smells bad. I tried it this morning ...

The leaf I picked came from this one. Last year as I was hoicking the self-sown seedlings out, I took pity on him and potted him up. He's been attacked by something in the past couple of weeks (a fungus??) and I've had to pull various of the leaves off, so while I was at it I had a quick sniff.

I couldn't smell anything, but then it's common knowledge that when the sense of smell was being given out, I was standing way out of line...

Introduced into Italy in 1760, as an ornamental plant, Ailanthus has now largely taken over in many areas. A report produced by the Italian Ministry of the Environment together with various other institutions (2) gives a detailed description of ten of the most invasive plants in the country. Of those ten, Ailanthus altissima is the only one shown as present in every single region in Italy.

And it's not just in Italy. It's become a pest throughout much of Europe. When I was in London this summer I noticed them growing in the park at the back of the house - somewhere I'd never noticed them before. They weren't very tall, but they were maturing fast. Once they start to seed, there'll be no stopping them.

And they're right behind the garden.


1. Ailanthus altissima - Wikipedia
2. Plant Invasion in Italy - An overview

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Matter of Space

Earlier in the year I blogged about how much difference it had made to my wallflower seedlings whether I'd kept them growing in small pots or had planted them straight into their final containers. You can see what happened here, but basically the seedlings in small pots, with restricted space for their roots grew much better.

But there's an irony here - because potting seedlings in this way may mean less space for them - but having a multitude of individual pots lined up takes up far more space on the balcony. And when you're balcony gardening, space is at a premium.
So when my next batch of seedlings was ready to be pricked out, I hit on an alternative.

Some of them went into small pots, but then those pots went into a larger container and the spaces between then were filled with soil. And more seedlings went into the spaces, their growing room equally restricted by the walls of the pots around them.

It's worked a treat. If anything, some of the seedlings in the spaces between the pots have done even better than those in them.

Soon I'll be moving them to their final containers. But even here there's an advantage. The seedlings in the spaces won't have to be moved at all. I shall simply take out the pots and leave them where they are. So no disturbance to the roots at all. And where the pots have been taken away, I'll have neat "pot-sized" holes, where I can pop in other plants to add variety - again meaning minimum root disturbance.

It's been an experiment that really paid off, and one that I'll certainly be repeating in future.
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