Bird on a Wire


Adjusting the Sails*

A friend, himself a serious and very knowledgeable gardener, once told me that he thought that gardens begin to look weary after seven years or so and then need a fundamental overhaul. For us the ‘overhauling’ has been largely out of our hands as one by one the row of elderly trees that protected the balcony from the fiercest of the sun’s heat, or the winter winds, have died back and been removed. Other mighty trees: limes, London planes and ash still circle us but not with the intimate connection and protection that first attracted us to high rise living atop a converted Edwardian school on the Southern edge of London, which for a number of years now has been home.

The outdoor space, not quite a roof garden, but a more extensive and irregular surrounding planting opportunity than a balcony, has had to keep up with the times and as the micro-climate has changed, so has much of the planting. But not all. Below the level of the brick parapet life has continued largely unaffected by the absence of the ancient trees, and comes and goes with the seasons with herbs, including wayward rosemary and lemon verbena, lavender (not very successfully in spite of helpful advice gratefully received) and other perennials and small shrubs taking turns to attract the bees and catch my eye.

Above the brickwork the sturdy railings have provided very necessary secure anchorage for the larger shrubs and small trees that I am now hoping will provide some privacy and shelter for this exposed site. The small eucalyptus, E Nicholii, which I plant in large containers quickly spin out of control in the wind unless tied down, whereas the olives stay put in fair weather or foul, presumably because although both trees are silver evergreens, the leaf and branch combination is less susceptible to gale-force conditions and doesn’t have the same propensity to act as a spinnaker catching the prevailing wind. I’m on the lookout for any large shrub/small tree, preferably evergreen that will tolerate high Summer temperatures and Winter wiles, as I’m in danger of heading towards a mono-culture up aloft with olive trees, which I love, becoming the over-dominant species although they will always have stiff competition from the abundant and equally happy roses.

Meanwhile on a rather frantic pre-Christmas shopping trip to a local garden centre, I was surprised and delighted to come across a  pomegranate for sale in amongst the taller shrubs and next door to the pyracantha (it took me a while to work out that they were displayed alphabetically). It was well over eight feet high in its pot and more columnar in habit than those I’ve seen growing in the South of France and beyond, which was reassuring as the juvenile one I planted last Summer, close to the warmth of the building and as sheltered as I can manage from the extremes of the weather, will also be columnar it seems.

I keep reminding myself that craggy Greek slopes are snow covered in Winter, and baked by the sun in the Summer but I still feel I’m expecting rather a lot from my expanding selection of Mediterranean plants.

Advice from the Experts

I support the RHS and enjoy reading (or dipping into) ‘The Garden’, which as with all magazines arrives with contents that are slightly ahead of real time – it seems a bit early in the year to be thinking about planting aeoniums, but no matter, there is much to learn, including experts’ suggestions for evergreens to beat drought, and a preview of Cleve West’s garden for Chelsea, designed to support the charity Centrepoint. As its name suggests ‘365 days of bees’ recommends nectar-rich plants to grow in the garden throughout the year for visiting bees and other pollinators, although it might be more of a challenge to find plants for pots for the balcony that can provide such a consistent supply of nectar without help from the garden below.

It was 3 degrees outside the bedroom last night but nevertheless I caught a glimpse of a bee heading back from the flowering rosemary late morning when presumably it was a little warmer.

‘Bird on the metal railings’ With apologies to Leonard Cohen

By agreement with our fellow residents the pleasures of feeding visiting garden birds, and watching the tits and robins outside the bedroom window were relinquished by us and others pre-pandemic as the feeding stations had been taken over both by feral pigeons (with all the accompanying problems for us and our neighbours) as well as their country cousins. So now visitors are fewer and come more opportunistically in search of food or water. A robin this morning and yesterday a large thrush, possibly a fieldfare I wondered, but lacking both the necessary knowledge and chance to take a photo I’m not so sure. Another photographic opportunity I missed, which was way out of range of the security cameras below, solved a problem I was curious about a few weeks ago when it was still quite mild although Autumn was already giving way to Winter.

Three of the four olive trees I have around and about produce a surprisingly generous crop of olives which turn brown and lush before dropping to the ground as the weather turns frosty. But the most prolific tree, with the fattest olives, seemed to be losing its fruit prematurely, although I couldn’t find any on the tiled surface underneath. Eventually I saw the culprit, a wood pigeon with a large olive in its mouth. The thief returned daily for a while, slightly varying the time, but always at a moment when my phone/camera was out of reach, and only stopped when it had taken all the olives on the far side of the tree, away from my prying eyes and the building. I’m actually rather fond of wood pigeons but I now recognise that I take particular delight in watching my olives grow and swell with pride pari passu.

(More than once I have been criticised by close friends and relations for introducing archaic Latin phrases or obscure plant names into my posts – anyone who read an earlier post  explaining the misfortunes of my Latin education might be particularly surprised that I still cling on to the vestiges of my fragmented grasp of Latin and then show off in this unnecessary way. I’m also aware that I could do more to investigate the olive collective that welcomes Londoners’ olives and in turn turns them into saleable olive oil – a virtuous circle but I might need to be in a position to offer rather more fruit before my contribution would be welcome. I can find out.)

Pruning and Planning

The cover of The January edition of ‘Gardeners World’ magazine signposts what is featured on the inside – ‘Grow and save – how to save £££s by growing your own food’.

Our problem has often been how to avoid increasing the cost of each bean grown by various extravagances; replacing elderly tools, allowing the weeds to gain the upper hand, losing track of seed packets etc. So I will read on carefully. We have already decided that planting more of the crops we enjoy eating, which store well and can cope with some neglect is probably the best way forward for us, but we need to improve our storage facilities as a rather damp shed and family members’ bedrooms and garages are not really a sustainable addition to our overwintering arrangements.

Meanwhile we are still eating our own butternut squash and onions and have only just started buying potatoes again. The garlic planted just before the snow hit the South East has happily come into growth and we’ve reminded ourselves that the next task will be winter pruning – the juvenile apple tree and currant bushes but not the cherry tree which needs warmer conditions for any wounds to heal over.

Vernalisation is a process I thought I understood long before I knew the word, now I’m not so sure. Does planting garlic before Christmas in order to prepare the plants for growth the next year count as vernalisation? When I checked with the internet the emphasis seems to be on planting before a cold spell to promote flowering.

Happy Days

Some of the roses have carried on flowering regardless, not as prolifically as earlier in the year but very welcome when there is much less colour about. I’m not sure what the implications are for pruning but I’ve decided I will go gently and hope for the best. Even more extraordinarily some of the pelargoniums are still in flower alongside the trailing ivy which has adopted its winter pink hue.

But nothing is to me quite as extraordinary as the life and times of bumble bees. ‘A Sting in the Tale’ by Dave Goulson is highly recommended reading, and a very welcome Christmas present full of fascinating and unexpected facts. Unlike my olive trees which I’m sure would be happier in warmer Mediterranean climes, where they grew happily until the recent threat of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium which slowly chokes trees to death, bumble bees avoid Mediterranean countries as far as possible since their dense furry coats tend to prevent adequate cooling when their body temperature rises to dangerous levels. The unusually large Bombus polaris on the other hand lives well within the Arctic Circle and relies on being larger and unusually hairy for its survival. I’ve often wondered if bumble bees nest on the balcony – mice have done and have vacated their homes when under threat, usually I expect from me rummaging around too close to their cosy hideaways. I leave plenty of nest material around the place; straw and artificial ‘wool’ for nesting birds or bees. Apparently loft insulation material is popular with bumbles but lacking a loft I have none to provide. Or could the bees that buzz around on sunny Winter days be solitary bees rather than hungry queen bumbles? Too many questions, too few answers. And I draw the line at offering queens a home ‘chez nous’.

Lunch before Christmas with two close friends was interrupted by the characteristic buzzing of a bumble behind a heavy curtain. Each friend had kindly brought a bunch of flowers which I had put in vases and placed strategically for the visual impact at different points in the room, but had also, we subsequently assumed, attracted the bee drawn through the narrow crack in the window by the smell of the flowers. So far so good, but bizarrely the bee headed for a third vase of flowers, a permanent fixture of artificial flowers with no scent, nectar or pollen but apparently attractive enough for it to burrow into one of the silk and plastic flowers, and sufficiently comfortable that it remained quite placid as I took the flower to the open window so that the sleepy bumble could once again take it’s chances in the wider world.

*William Arthur Ward is a new name to me but this quote caught my eye when I was looking for something else -‘The pessimist complains about the wind;the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.‘ Mr Ward was apparently a motivational expert who may or may not have known much about sailing. It was hard enough tying my wayward eucalyptus to the railings in a forceful headwind.

Happy New Year!



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  1. I noticed that you had trouble in tying your eucalyptus to the
    railing. In my world I see a eucalyptus growing to perhaps 60ft.
    Presumably yours is not yet at that height but then perhaps a
    “wayward” one is stunted in some way.

    • Many thanks for your comment Peter. I have bought three or four much smaller eucalyptus from Grafton Nursery who sell a wide range of hardy dwarf eucalyptus suitable for small gardens and containers which are generally happy enough on our balcony. I favour E Nicholii which are good in containers and rather beautiful. There natural distribution is (I read) limited to a small area – the Northern Tablelands, in New South Wales. At the moment I have an e-mail sitting in my in box from Grafton Nursery advertising their recovery kit including mulch and nutrients, especially for over wintering eucalyptus plants in containers. I haven’t ordered a kit yet but I do recognise that a Winter in South West London is a very different experience from New South Wales. For now I remain optimistic.

Lost and Found

This post is overdue: inadvertently I deleted my first version focusing on growing veg, and was dispirited by doing so. I had been unusually pleased with the writing, the photos worked well as late Summer began to give way to the first signs of Autumn and I felt foolish and somewhat ashamed of my schoolgirl error. By the time I recovered my sang-froid we had entered a domestic IT maelstrom which it turned out, coincided with a breakdown of my access to WordPress, the platform I use for the blog.

All is now well and meanwhile gardening aloft has been a consoling occupation.

The activity of gardening, as Sue Stuart-Smith highlights in her book ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, is now widely recognised as a creative way to harness intense and painful feelings. This year, the cramped rooftop garden has evolved into a secluded space with a strategically placed spindle bush, Euonymus europaeus Red Cascade, taking up its place centre stage, offering beauty and interest at various points in the year and conveniently dropping its leaves as light levels fall.

Life on the Allotment

In response to a request, instead of somewhat tantalising references to the allotment, henceforth (but probably not in the quiet depths of Winter) I will be including a section on the allotment where I am definitely the under-gardener, but with views and opinions of my own – not always an easy combination for the team leader.

The allotment is a few miles away, on land rented by a private allotment society, which we took over from my sister-in-law who had cared for it with her husband for many years, bringing science as well as hard work, and neat rows to the endeavour. Things are now a little bit more random, but her legacy lives on in the carefully nurtured ground and some wonderful Autumn fruiting raspberries which last year produced fruit for over three months, protected a bit from excess heat by the nearby wisteria which wanders over the shed and though the neighbouring trees and hedge, mingling the while with a fruit-bearing bramble with a good head for heights. Unfortunately there is a tendency for the beautiful racemes of the wisteria to make access to the shed rather difficult, so any inconvenient trailing stems are cut back without due care and attention, only for the very well established climber to flower profusely another year.

The allotment is approximately 7m x 30m but we sub-let about a third to our neighbouring allotmentier who already has a large immaculate plot but is pleased to have more. In return we benefit from the land he has given over to nettles (so we feel we don’t have to) which will hopefully provide food and shelter for some of the more than forty species, I read, of insects and butterflies that are partially or completely dependent on this high-protein food.

I have tasted nettle soup but haven’t yet developed a real liking for it, whereas studying the life of all sorts in our neighbour’s wild life pond is engrossing and a real source of fascination – nature red in tooth and claw. Very much earlier in the year, and several weeks after some of the copious frog spawn had emerged as tadpoles, but before any lack of rain-water was unduly significant, large numbers of dead adult frogs were to be found on the grass paths around the pond with no obvious explanation. I wonder why.

The planting style is somewhat informal – beetroot seeds scattered rather than necessarily neatly planted in defined rows – but after several years we reached a peak last year when we grew about 25% of our considerable annual fruit and vegetable needs, tomatoes and leafy salads excepted. This achievement was in spite of the encroachment of pumpkins enthusiastically nurtured by the rapidly growing grandson and a steady supply of veg to family and friends at peak season – mostly of course the ever over-productive courgettes. We were self sufficient for many months in potatoes, yet longer in onions, and were eating stored butternut squash well into the new year. However, the birds got most of the ripened sweetcorn so somewhat disheartened we gave up this year as we will again be away at the crucial time.

This year’s radishes and dwarf beans made a brief appearance, garlic and shallots were rather scant (too few plants) and the self-seeded sunflowers looked stunning from mid-Summer onwards, with different plants flowering and fading in turn, seemingly partaking in a carefully orchestrated display. They have happily stayed the course and will hopefully provide the birds with seed until much later in the year, having surprisingly struggled for a while in the extreme heat, hanging their heads rather than turning to the sun. The early Summer months are always noticeable for the profusion of mare’s tails which cover the ground with fern-like greenery growing up to 18 inches or so tall, and retreating as the days begin to shorten once again. They don’t necessarily interfere with plant survival, and have been around since the dinosaurs walked the earth, but at their peak they take over and make it difficult to see what’s happening closer to the ground. Carrot fronds for example are difficult to distinguish from the top growth of the habitual invader.

Beans (French and Runners) have been plentiful, beetroot abundant with several successful repeat sowings, exceptionally large numbers of ridge cucumbers as well as our first apples, so encouraging, but in terms of ground covered, and weight of crop, as last year, the butternut squash plants advanced in all directions, apparently enjoying the heat and strategic watering, until that had to be paused, culminating in plentiful fruit from both the varieties we selected. One of these promised fruit weighing up to 3Kg, which was fulfilled, and now holds the prospect of rather a lot of soup in the coming Autumn months. So some successes but overall we have harvested smaller crops (potatoes and onions) than last year or had fewer pickings (beans and raspberries sadly too) presumably as the effect of the heat and drought was felt all round.

I learnt the French word for beetroot (betterave) 0n a recent trip to France – why haven’t I picked up such a wonderful word before, I wonder? Maybe growing up at a time when pickled beetroot was the norm in England deterred my French teachers from introducing the name of such a versatile vegetable.

Both the butternut squash plants and the cucumbers were reared from seed, on the balcony, in individual small re-used plastic pots. The seeds share the characteristic of being large, and with a very high germination rate, which makes the whole undertaking much more straightforward than planting fine seed with the later requirement of thinning. As I have mentioned before I am not very keen on the gardening tasks which require time and patience and I’ve learnt that our kitchen, with a large sky-light, can get much too hot for happy germination.

Directly underneath this magnet for heat and light, at the height of the heatwave (so several weeks after these seeds needed to be nurtured before being planted out) the indoor thermometer recorded a temperature 0f 43 degrees, while other rooms, shaded by blinds and shrouded by plants, were comfortably cooler. 

Next year we are going to try growing sweet potatoes which we learn involves growing ‘slips’ from sweet potato tubers and then planting the slips. As it is a rather complicated task I think I will leave it to others.

However, sadly and worryingly, wherever you looked at the height of Summer, in this dried out corner of the country, birds and bees were largely absent from roof gardens, allotments, riverside paths and elsewhere and while shrubberies and hedgerows  managed to stay predominantly green the leaves crisped up all around, water sources dried up and even the courgettes were significantly less productive. Although I admit, as someone who can quickly feel overwhelmed by too many courgettes, courgettes in moderation came as something of a respite.

And on the Balcony

Recently bees have resumed their journey up aloft to enjoy the late-Summer flowering caryopteris, and its violet blue flowers (still a magnet at this time of year) and the pots and plants have recovered well from the sky high Summer temperatures and limited watering which for a while seemed would go on for ever. The newly planted pomegranate has enjoyed the heat and light and is still holding its leaves, which have turned from a particularly brilliant glossy green to yellow and ochre, so the balcony is still full of colour but more muted now. Roses, pelargoniums and thulbaghia are continuing to bloom, a few clematis flowers, rather faded in colour, are still in view and the olives are ripening. The scene would not be out of place on any balcony or roof garden, catching the sun, between the southern corner of England down to the sun-baked far reaches of Provence or Tuscany, with silver evergreens and drought tolerant plants. Pretty as a picture.

But there are now only a few vestiges of the cottage garden plants that have successfully competed in the past with the heat-seeking plants for space and attention. One by one as the Mediterranean plants have flourished in this year’s exceptional heat and drought, so the containers have become the final resting place first for aqualegias, which struggled without adequate rainfall early in the year, thalictrum, which should never do well in exposed high rise gardens, but have done so until this year, or hardy geraniums, which have unsurprisingly found the hot, dry conditions to be a challenge too far.

On the other hand clematis, roses and salvias (perhaps not a traditional cottage garden plant but well suited to assembly planting) have defied the odds with long flowering seasons, and whenever there has been respite from the heat, or I have done some cautious watering, have put on a healthy growth spurt with renewed vigour.

This may or may not be a good thing in the long run as trees, shrubs and other plants are known to put out an exceptional display of flowers or fruit before showing signs of dying back or succumbing to a disease or deficiency. I have an elderly rosemary bush that I am watching anxiously; after flowering at the beginning of the year it has looked less and less likely to green up again and I’ve taken the precaution of planting up another rosemary (Miss Jessopp’s Upright) ready to replace the original plant which I’ve grown attached to but has, I think, more or less reached the point of becoming a distraction. On the whole I’m keener on having a planted space that is full of favourites, happy in their environment, but in reality, and disappointingly, the roof garden only has the capacity for one or two people. I often wish we had more space for both plants and people.

Last Words

We have been enjoying wonderful raspberries and the last, probably, of our courgettes this weekend. The butternut squashes are being (mostly) housed by friends and family, the stored potatoes have begun to sprout so we may need to rethink the storage arrangements and eat them quickly, and the brassicas planted against the clock seem to be growing happily.

As I have mentioned previously, one of my cousins once pointed out that I don’t like mud. He was right, and it would be truthful to admit that any references to veg growing on the allotment over the next few months maybe hearsay rather than based on first hand experience.



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  1. How about bright yellow wellies to get over your dislike of mud. I seem to vaguely remember a mention of a bright yellow coat in one post.

    I’ve just read your height of the summer heat post. Bit puzzling about lavender not surviving on the terrace unlike the other mediterranean plants. Try some on the allotment, it’s edible after all.

    • Thank you for your comment (I’ll keep a look-out for pretty boots) and for reminding me of my canary yellow mini coat………around the same, long ago, time I also had large adhesive daisies on my mini that the purchaser rather liked, which was lucky when it was time to sell.

      During the lockdown I went on a hunt for ‘sailing boots’. We were in Cornwall and had memories of previously owning yachting wellies which are wider round the ankle and so easier to kick off if you splash in the water or are getting older. They didn’t have any at the time in blue, yellow or any other colour, but we might try again.

      Negotiating the changeover from wellies back to other footwear on the sloping muddy patch outside the allotment shed is always a bit hazardous whatever we do to minimize the risk of very muddy socks.

      As to the lavender perhaps I need to put them in larger containers – I tend to forget that they are shrubs.

Summer Aloft


The last few weeks have been busy.  The newly planted trees in the grounds below have needed watering and our allotment has needed attention. In return it has already rewarded us with fresh vegetables, including aliums of all sorts, shallots being a new treat, as well as encouragingly good prospects for the cucumbers which at this stage seem to be particularly plentiful. However, it is the balcony that has preoccupied my waking hours. Plants have demanded care and attention, the larger containers have been moved around to enhance the space and various failures have fortunately been lost in the undergrowth. So like an over anxious parent I have been hovering around tending and fussing, but not writing. Then this year, as every year, as the year turned and mid-Summer was left behind, as if a switch was thrown (an American expression I think I first heard in my student days) I stopped fussing, left the plants alone and began to enjoy what we have.

The benefit of benign neglect in a small space is, I would argue, a certain charm as the encircling plants take over, together with a wide variety of insects, including this year I have noticed day flying moths, identified by a long-distance friend with the necessary expertise. Meanwhile I am of course green with envy whenever I find myself enjoying someone else’s garden and more expansive green space.  But for now the heat has driven me indoors and I’m pleased to be exploring the wider reaches of the horticultural world, while watching with horror as reports of the devastation caused by wild fires across Europe fill the news and our screens.

Roses are Pink

Turkish delight was often a Christmas treat, gift wrapped and with a particular flavour and chewy texture which I’ve always enjoyed. On the other hand my introduction to rose water as an ingredient of skin products and fragrances was a talk from a Yardley rep in the 1960s. The talk was organised by my school, held in the gym and was completely out of step with the times – a year or two later, and heavily influenced by Mary Quant, I would be painting freckles on my face, using extravagant amounts of black eye liner and wearing mini skirts. But I do remember a key message being that rose water in the base fragrance of most perfumes. Why I’ve remembered this is something of a mystery but as rose water flavoured desserts, and Middle Eastern food, has become a bigger part of my life, I have from time to time wondered where it comes from. Now I know thanks to a few free moments, an interesting website and renewed curiosity that led me to a wonderfully sympathetic description of the fields of roses in Qamsar and the craftmanship involved in turning the petals into a global product.

I recommend a read when you have a few moments, although you will have to navigate your way through the adverts. Here is the introduction to the article

‘The soft, pink color of dawn still lingers in the sky, and the first golden rays of the sun are just starting to touch the tips of the surrounding mountains. Yet in the rose fields of Qamsar, a small town in the highlands of central Iran, work is already underway. Amid the chirping of nightingales, locals make their way into the fields, where the crisp morning air is heady with the thick aroma of Damask roses.’

It is the mention of nightingales, combined with the intense pink of the rose petals, that I found particularly evocative, although I shouldn’t have been unduely surprised about the nightingales as I already knew that the population in Europe and the middle East could be measured in millions rather than the sparse numbers in South East England, where they struggle at the northern limit of their territory. I’m not sure that any have been spotted in Berkeley Square recently.

Fringe Benefits

It’s mid-morning and already 31 degrees indoors and out, with temperatures expected to reach the 40s later in the day .

At first glance life on the rooftop balcony is deceptive as the mediterranean plants are adapted to some extent to withstand heat and drought, and I have continued to water from time to time, filling the watering can, rather than making use of a hosepipe, so I don’t overdue it. Nevertheless the contrast between the verdant olive trees aloft with fruit beginning to swell and the parched ground below is very evident.

I’m reasonably sure that my choice of mediterranean plants was really to remind myself, and perhaps others too, of treasured time spent in southern climes rather than to create what has become in horticultural terms a mini Mediterranean zone with flora in common with parts of Australia (several eucalpti), South Africa (tulbaghia and pelargoniums), Southern California and the Mediterranean basin itself with rosemary, bay, oregano and thyme as well as pittosporums and penstemon. Bizarrely I always struggle to get lavender to make it from one year to the next so any tips on growing lavender (English or French) in containers would be very welcome.

Roses too seem remarkably tolerant of the heat and arid conditions, perhaps indebted to their Iranian ancestry, and are providing a very valuable barrier between the hot air outside and the main bedroom alongside.

I now know that from a horticultural perspective the Mediterranean zone is considered to be between 31 degrees and 40 degrees latitude north and south of the equator, with probably in most years an equivalent range of Summer temperatures. Winter rains are a feature too. Toulon, at the most southerly tip of mainland France, has a higher annual rainfall than Paris which comes as something of a surprise. Typically the rain in the South arrives in heavy downpours rather than light rain on frequent grey days. Until not so long ago, armed with both hosepipe and watering can, I have manipulated the conditions on the roof garden, to mimic the natural habitat of the Mediterranean plants, while having my cake and eating it too as I’ve also enjoyed the Summer heat and straw coloured palette on holidays further South.

Now I am more restrained.

I have enjoyed ‘no mow May’ and the beautiful hedgerows, verges and field margins left alone by councils and landowners who have shown restraint and allowed these areas to become much needed habitats and havens for pollinators. But since the overgrown vegetation in certain areas is contributing to the spread of the ever increasing wildfires across Britain, particularly in the drier South East, I wonder if this apparently simple expedient may sadly need to be reconsidered. Cambridge Colleges, Hampton Court Palace and much more modestly our grounds below, have given over space to Summer meadows, now dessicated, close to buildings of all sorts, including businesses and private homes.

Temps Perdu

So if you have a south facing space in the South East corner of the (for the moment still) United Kingdom and want to plant up containers large and small here are some suggestions:

Olives, bay, Eucalyptus Nicholii, pittosporum, the impossibly named Convolvulus cneorum and new to me, pomegranate varieties, adapted for more northerly climes. These take a while to mature and in the Northern hemisphere produce fruit between October and February, which is all someway off but theoretically possible if I’m patient. Meanwhile I will enjoy my container based pomegranate which has reached the stage of being a very attractive, spreading small shrub with unexpectedly glossy bright green leaves – lovely. I’m hoping fruit will follow but that might be more likely in the Metropolis if Summers continue to heat up, which of course comes at a very high price.

I love the rituals that I associate with time spent in sunny Southern climes across the Channel – lowering and raising awnings and blinds, walking on the shady side of the street, opting for lighter clothes and watering in the cool of early morning or evening. However these rituals are now increasingly a part of life in my edge of city spot which you might think would mitigate against growing more familiar cottage garden plants and others which flourish in cooler, damper English Summers, but I have had surprisingly successes over the years.

If you like thalictrum but don’t have a convenient meadow to hand, try growing them in containers; you might find that they do rather well. The key thing seems to be to cram things in so that in time, as the temperature rises, at least all the roots are in shade and the risk of losing too much moisture through evaporation is reduced. This might mean sacrificing the stragglers that don’t like the conditions, or perhaps don’t like the wind. Tulbaghia does tolerate the wind but needs dividing when it gets overcrowded, otherwise the number of flowers tends to be rather disappointing, although the length of season (April – December) is a treat.

Dropmore purple is a moist soil loving plant but has grown well this year in shaded containers even with rather too much competition from other plants. It’s taken a while but a couple of years on from my first attempt the plants have bulked up, come through against the competition and put on a wonderful display.

Many thanks to everyone for their thoughts on the comments section below as well as through e-mails and other acknowledgements. I very much appreciate any curiosity about the balcony – which in reality is often much smaller than expected, less floweriverous than expected (next week it will always look better) which together with the absence of adequate seating for guests can’t be ignored.

Nor can the flattering dismay when visitors who have generously walked the required two or so steps forward and back to take it all in, and are then faced with the realisation that while I write about what I do know or have observed, I mostly don’t know.

Not long ago I was able to demonstrate to a visiting friend that yes you can grow roses in containers (preferably large and with selected roses optimally) but no I didn’t know the name of the rose she particularly liked. Notebooks of my gardening year with details of plans and purchases are mostly empty and my filing system(s) of plants purchased largely incomplete. Keeping labels with the plants is of course the wise way to go but I could do better.








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Troubling Times


I first began to think about this post a few weeks ago, then the incomprehensible happened. As I write, and with fighting continuing on the streets of Kyiv, war crimes being cited on the roads outside the city and in Bucha, the brutality of war is now a part of everyday family life for so many.

‘Fear, grief, loss and sadness’, Wordsworth’s ‘still, sad music of humanity’ has reached Ukraine and beyond

‘For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.’

William Wordsworth is understood by most scholars to have written ‘Tintern Abbey’ , as a response to the turmoil of the French Revolution. Once the radical action became more violent Wordsworth went ‘to nature to get away from the dreadfulness’ . The poem includes his acknowledgement that ‘returning to nature and reflection of the landscape comforted him from “the fever of the world”‘.


It’s no secret that I immersed myself in the details of my horticultural exploits following a personal loss several years ago. Developing a green space in rather inauspicious circumstances became a rewarding, absorbing and steadying occupation. The fragmented outdoor space, together with our recently acquired top floor home, was in itself a replacement for the original roof of the converted Edwardian secondary school, which had been lost to an incendiary bomb in the second world war. So, many bags of compost later, many deliveries of pots and plants, and untold hours tending the various small trees, shrubs and perennials as well as seasonal plants (and with grateful thanks to the water supply courtesy of our kind neighbour) a garden, of sorts, has emerged.

During the early days, and still at certain moments, it was the involvement in the details of another world that helped me through. Individual plants lend themselves to close observation and so it was that I came through an intensely difficult period with newly acquired knowledge and renewed enthusiasm. Days spent away from the plants, because of work or other plans, as well as the vagaries of the weather, left me unsettled, whereas returning to the plant life around me was always settling. It didn’t seem to matter that it was an awkward undertaking with much to learn and many setbacks.

Storm Eunice

We were lucky. The stately lime trees that fringe the grounds below stayed rooted to the spot and although twigs and smaller branches were scattered around, mingled with sheets of cardboard and other domestic debris, no significant damage was done. Up aloft I’d taken precautions, lashing anything that I could to the railings and moving all the smaller pots to sheltered corners while regretting not watering some of the containers before the worst of the storm arrived. The earlier winds had dried out the larger planters leaving them more vulnerable to the onslaught to come. One such unstable container, occupied by a ‘lollipop’ dwarf eucalyptus gunii (surprising but true, as eucalyptus gunii is a native of Tasmania where it is known as cider gum and will grow up to 35 metres in height) spun out of control before I reached it, landing on the elderly rose I mentioned in my last ‘Retiring Gardener’ post. In a brief moment of respite I managed to haul the eucalyptus and pot upright and belatedly tie it to the railings.

The rose was unscathed but much plant life across the country was irrevocably lost or damaged – heartbreaking and worrying for individual gardeners, all plant lovers, and many others, but trees and ornamental plants have considerable powers of recovery. Nearby, Spring has arrived in Richmond Park and the scars of Winter are in retreat thanks both to the wonders of nature and the park’s workforce, guardians of both the trees and the deer who live amongst them, eating grass and leafy shoots.

Pottering On

I’m not keen on potting on seedlings and potbound plants so I’ve always tended to be lazy and leave it to the last moment and/or repot into planters much bigger than the original. I’ve long known that you should only go up one size or so rather than leap ahead, but I’ve never known why. On the whole this hasn’t been a problem and I’ve opportunistically used the excess space in the planter around the specimen plant for extra herbs as well as seasonal bulbs or plants I’ve over-ordered. As time passes, and if all goes well, the feature plant will start to get cramped at which point I remove any remaining smaller plants (to re-home if possible) feed and water the now appropriately sized planter and wait for its occupant to spread its roots.

However, I now understand that if you don’t pot on in the advised way, an immature root system can get waterlogged with roots rotting off if left in overly wet compost for too long. So it seems that competition from the underplanting may be helping to keep the compost from being too wet for too long. This approach has been pretty successful over the years so I’m planning to continue in the same vein (but better informed) as it has avoided too much potting on, which, if your outdoor space is on the top floor and faces the prevailing winds, requires waiting for a very still day in order to prevent the loss of valuable compost which will blow around at every opportunity.

Sadly we lost our sweet box, Sarcococca confusa, late last year after several years of scent and subtle flowers. It had had enough of life in a container, having more recently yearned it seemed for open ground, and more particularly a shady spot, but it is on the short list to try again as I am trying to create a less exposed, shady area on the balcony, close to the one and only seating area. However, this project has been set back by the Winter weather as one of the beautiful E Nicholii (a smallish narrow leaved eucalyptus) with the potential to provide some shade, has lost much of its foliage and will take time to recover.

Planting tip : On the other hand Tulbulgia are very happy in pots and planters, as long as they are in full sun, but they are greedy and will take over any container very quickly, so in my experience are generally best raised on their own or with other vigorous plants capable of competing for space. Meanwhile I am waiting anxiously to see how the apricot geum ‘Mai Tai’ and purple salvia ‘Amistad’ that I planted somewhat experimentally with an established tulbughia (thereby breaking my own rule of thumb) will cope this year.

Say it with Flowers

Late Spring on the balcony is tantalising. The plants are coming into growth but the ratio of flowers to compost is still heavily weighted towards too much compost on display and too few flowers. There are many gaps. Sleet in the air deterred some of the Spring bulbs and there were also supply problems in the Autumn when I turned my back on my favourite spring bulb supplier as I couldn’t master the newly introduced ‘improved’ web-site. So a few single spies have come into flower but no battalions yet, although with each day a few more tulip flowers emerge and the rather blowsy short stemmed pink tulips I planted for the first time last November are particularly well worth the wait. I’m assuming that the aberrant lone flower stem that opened out about three weeks ago belonged to a bulb that I had planted much closer (too close for a lengthy life) to the surface of the compost.

Showing some visitors the roof garden was to be reminded that it is indeed a very small space, that seeing familiar plants can evoke strong feelings, and a sense of home, and that on my part it is somewhat eccentric to be quite so keen to grow Mediterranean plants, pomegranates being one of the latest, at altitude on the outer fringes of the metropolis.

But needs must, preoccupied as I am with the impact of gaps and losses evident amongst the plant life on the balcony where much can be replaced or replenished with lessons learnt along the way. I’m also aware that in much of life, and for many people, the sad music of humanity bangs a very different drum, and the chance to nurture a personal green space, with all it’s potential beauty and other benefits, remains a very distant possibility. Time in nature and community gardening projects are some of the green prescriptions available on the NHS  which are increasingly recognised as helpful for people with depression and anxiety disorders, and if you are wondering how to widen your own green options this might be the time to plan some visits to other gardens and check what will be open nearby as part of the National Garden Scheme.

Planting tip: If you are looking for a clematis that flowers early and is happy in a container (although would I’m sure prefer open ground)  you might try the evergreen Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blossom’ which has a wonderful display of soft pink flowers for 2 or 3 weeks from early March onwards – pretty, perfumed and a reminder that Spring is on its way.

And if you are planning a new garden it might be wise to plan for all the impedimenta that goes with gardening, including young plants, tools, compost; I could go on. Wandering into the main bedroom recently I noticed the rather grubby watering can and a pair of gardening gloves on a rug by the open doors to the main roof garden. Unsurprising in one way as the bedroom is the only gateway to the main planted area outside, but I was also very conscious that not all bedrooms, which in this example is in every other way a conventionally decorated and comfortable space, have to double up as tool shed and plant store on so many occasions.

I am very lucky to live with someone who tolerates all this with barely a murmur.

In Haste

A couple of weeks ago I received an apologetic e-mail from the supplier of the sweetpea seedlings I ordered late last year for the allotment, expressing regret for the anticipated delay in their arrival, predicted to be end of April. I read the e-mail with relief because the designated sweetpea area (one of my few responsibilities) was covered in weeds and had been left out of the recent manuring regime. Actually, fastidious as I am in many respects, I am quite happy to shovel manure when necessary, much less keen to do the hard chore of meticulous weeding at ground level on chilly days.

However, the sweetpeas arrived a month early, coinciding with a late cold snap. The local garden centre didn’t have any tall, compostable plant pots and I needed to give them all more house room. So in the absence of a potting shed or greenhouse the kitchen had to be commandeered alongside my very best stainless steel roasting tin, and with a homage to ‘Blue Peter’ I set to and constructed a makeshift arrangement which would hopefully see the seedlings through until they could be moved on to more suitable accommodation. I imagined too that with time against us we would be packing bags of seed compost and searching for more pots as we travelled West for the Easter weekend.

Luckily a green-fingered granddaughter took things in hand.

The makeshift arrangement was already collapsing, so tall party cups were put to good use, a sharp pencil was used to pierce holes in the bottom of each cup, seedlings and compost were carefully introduced to each, and even the weakest seedling was given painstaking attention. Robust enough now, and appropriately housed, they could be transported to another family member for safe-keeping while we were away. I was able to retrieve the roasting tin in time for some seasonal cooking on our return home, although it won’t be until late Summer that the roasted vegetables are all from the allotment, and hopefully the happy enough small sweet pea plants will be ready for the arrival of some benign weather and a warm afternoon when they can be planted out.

Planting tip: In truth I have always coveted the beauty of a rose-filled English country garden in high Summer, but if you have a smaller, quirkier space then you can enjoy the freedom to indulge more idiosyncratic possibilities. In my case, this year it is sparkly solar powered dandelion lights dotted around. Thanks to the longer days they last for several hours into the evening, ready to re-charge and shine again at dusk the following day. I am delighted with them.

Gardens and gardening are often sociable spaces and activities. Admiring comments are always welcome, help and advice is often freely given and seeds and produce exchanged, and the possibility of contributing to the wider green agenda is rewarding too. Down below the grass bordering the parking area is managed as a wildflower meadow with snake’s head fritillaries now appearing at intervals, hopefully with more to come next year. What’s missing in this urban space is the peace and quiet of the countryside and the views beyond. Of course struggling with a yearning for a bigger space isn’t always easy, but nature has a foothold hereabouts and you might be surprised how successful awkward urban spaces can be at providing calming plant filled oases in a built up area and are increasingly popular with pollinators.


With grateful acknowledgement to Sue Stuart-Smith, author of ‘The Well Gardened Mind’ Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World

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  1. Lovely to read that the granddaughter was helpful and “green fingered”. A proposal of garden jobs is being compiled for when she returns from her grandparents tour today.

Intimations of Spring


Window Shopping

One of my favourite photos is of a gnarled pomegranate tree, growing on the sunscorched hills in the south east corner of France. The image evokes all sorts of memories and sensations; the heat inevitably as it was taken on a bright day at the height of Summer, the history of the area and more immediately the excitement at the possibility of growing one on the balcony – I have a spot in mind.

Fast forward from these preliminary thoughts in the shortest days of the year to January’s edition of ‘The Garden’ which is the monthly magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). In a small column headed ‘Test plants to their limits’ Rose Hardy, multiple Chelsea gold medal winning owner of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, encourages gardeners to learn about plants by ‘pushing them to their extremes and understanding the situations they can thrive in and tolerate.’ I may be being too hopeful, and there is indeed something uncomfortable about restraining the growth of a magnificent plant by keeping it over-long in the confines of a container, but there is a middle ground. My olives will never be as productive, or as tall, as on their native slopes but they are disease free and do produce some fruit each year which the birds enjoy. The trees themselves reward me by providing beauty, privacy and shade all year round and seem happy enough to settle for city life.

So I wonder if a pomegranate might too?

I read that the variety ‘Provence’ is hardy to minus 17 degrees centigrade, reaches a height of 5-6 metres (rather improbable on my windy balcony) likes full sun, is self-fertile, very productive in the UK and can tolerate partial shade, so I also wonder what the catch is as they aren’t readily to be seen outdoors in south-east England. I will keep you posted, but first I have some painful choices to make as something will have to give way for the new arrival and I will need to buy another large container, although I had resolved, indeed promised, in a fingers crossed behind my back sort of way, that I wouldn’t get any more pots.

As Sue pointed out in a recent comment, the Gulf Stream provides the warmth that pomegranates might need to fruit but perhaps the damp that often accompanies the Western reaches of the British Isles might be a deterrent to successful outdoor pomegranate growing. It also occurs to me that a spacious greenhouse or conservatory could be an ideal space as far north as Yorkshire or beyond. Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey (not Yorkshire), also has a restaurant which occupies a large conservatory (excellent food and mud underfoot) which does indeed successfully grow pomegranates to the flowering stage (pretty pinks and soft reds but not spectacular) although I’ve never eaten there in the early Autumn so I haven’t actually seen any fruit.

Truth and Illusion

Gardening in tiny spaces involves a certain amount of discipline, negotiation and heartache if you want to combine beauty, scent, seating and shade as well as enough room to manoeuvre and tend to your plants of choice. However, as some of my current planters are occupied by spring bulbs the moment is not so far off when the pots can be stacked up and give way to new arrivals, including a container for the aforesaid pomegranate I’m hoping to install. On the next windless day I will take an inventory and see what planting gaps have emerged since the Summer, and what space I can create for this new experiment. Bearing in mind that the terrace offers a certain amount of underfloor heating from the flat below, together with wind protection from the parapet wall, I remain optimistic, although any failed experiment is immediately obvious when you garden at the level of individual plants and the only seating is intimately surrounded by pots and climbers.

Honesty now compels me to mention that photos taken on a sunny day as Winter gives way to Spring can flatter the impression of a unified space. Later in the year the individual containers will hopefully become as one as the abundant plant growth takes over but for now compost largely dominates the scene at ground level.

I do also have one very unhappy, and therefore rather unprepossessing olive, immediately outside the bedroom window, which after a series of mishaps, including being wrapped up for far too long in an unbreathable fabric while in transport, seemed to be beyond the reach of any possible recovery. But olives are tough plants and so I have persevered, each Spring saying to myself that this will be the last if my regime doesn’t result in a plant that enhances the space it occupies. So far it has shown enough appreciation of my care to put out some new growth but not nearly enough to contribute meaningfully to the bigger picture.

Taking Stock

The pomegranate is on order but is not alone. At this time of year, when the balcony is a somewhat disjointed collection of pots apparently comprising collections of bare sticks and bare compost, rather than a hard won, but hopefully reasonably thoughtful roof garden, in time a feast for my eyes alive with insects and faint whiffs of scent, I cannot resist the allure of plant catalogues and the internet. And so it is that a sheltered section of the balcony is currently acting as a holding station for the first deliveries. Even I am rather staggered by my optimism since space is at a premium and I am generally in favour of shrubs, small trees and perennials, which don’t need to be replaced annually, although these can have a shorter shelf life than those planted in the ground. However, the most intensely scented rose, with the prettiest pink flowers, is a particularly gnarled favourite approaching it’s twentieth year. Currently it lives outside the bedroom window, facing south east, which seems to suit, but it has done the rounds, filling in gaps and moving with the seasons enumerable timesover the years.

Nevertheless the risk of overcrowding is always close at hand.

I am also prone to mistakes. The most expensive wasn’t horticultural but a rather nice circular table accompanied by comfortable and generous chairs, which I optimistically bought at a moment before I recognised that compromises would need to involve the furniture as well as planting options.

Over time the plants have taken over, the table and chairs have long since been re-housed, and a permanent bench and fold away stools have replaced the comfortable chairs. The table in particular is no great loss as the kitchen is at the farthest point and there is certainly space for drinks of all sorts as well as Summer shade, although some ingenuity is required. A square ‘faux lead’ container is full of Spring bulbs which are just beginning to emerge but in time will fade, at which point a redundant square tile will top the pot and provide a useful perch for coffee mugs or wine glasses. In turn when the days get cooler and shorter, and the temptation to linger outside has lost its allure, the tile will be put behind the bench and the bulbs again given priority. However, my careless smashing of some old chipped tiles, destined to be used as drainage material, resulted in damage to some of the tiles surfacing the balcony itself. So having ventured outside when the wild winds relented my efforts were something of a failure on the re-cycling front as I now have an excess of drainage material and a shortage of replacement tiles for the balcony.

First Loves

If gardens, deliberately or not, are often a re-creation of somewhere that holds special memories and associations, then perhaps it’s not surprising that the balcony has in some respects evolved into a minute outpost of south east Provence, an area which until relatively recently I was lucky enough to visit frequently. All a far cry from my first love of woodland plants which I used to revel in when wandering in the outer reaches of the garden I grew up in and the surrounding wooded areas – soft colours, reliable ground cover, feathery foliage and more.

As a young student I spent a few days on the Greek island of Hydra with a friend who, like me, was open to new experiences and happy to be away from familiar family holidays. We were naive and hadn’t made any plans before we left but did manage to see many of the main historic sights including Delphi, the Parthenon, Corinth and the amphitheatre at Epidaurus where we saw a production of Medea. Fortunate really as I had taken part in a school production of Medea as a member of the chorus wearing a sort of toga made from sheets dyed a memorable but distinctly unattractive shade of green. It’s perhaps fortunate too that the photos of the production were all in black and white. Anyway I was equipped to follow the drama on-stage and, more significantly, have never forgotten sitting on the ancient stones of the amphitheatre, as families had done for centuries, eating picnics brought from Athens as the sun dropped below the horizon and the tragedy unfolded. However, our budgets were overstretched and we ate biscuits.

All these memories came flooding back recently while watching Monty Don’s recent BBC 2 series on Adriatic gardens which ending in Hydra. My roof garden is of course a far cry from the abundance of soft colours and aromatic scent to be found in the courtyard gardens of Greece and its islands. There are no weathered ancient olive trees in the surrounding landscape, and red brick rather than weathered stone is the familiar back drop, but surprisingly after a long hot Summer several of the plants audibly rustle in the wind having acquired a wafer thin, papery-dry quality. I usually stop regular watering after mid June, after which they have to manage on lean rations, but together, if the Summer is hot enough, the rosemary and other herbs, gaura and lavender linger on conjuring up a brief impression of the Mediterranean idyll, while cohabiting quite happily with the late season roses and clematii that make up much of the rest of the garden. However, the pittosporum doesn’t produce the scent that it’s counterpart on Hydra might, which is a pity, but not a surprise.

So if interested it might be worth knowing that rosemary grows exceptionally happily in my South facing windswept roof garden, lavender is happy in pots (at least for a few seasons) and sage (with red onion courtesy of the allotment a great addition to homemade focaccia and other culinary endeavours) as well as gaura lindheimeri (a native of the Mediterranean zone in the southern States of America) enjoy life aloft together with olives above and the everlasting erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican or Cornish daisy) below. Cistus too do well as long as they are in terracotta pots to avoid any risk of becoming waterlogged. They are wonderful at the beginning of June before other Summer flowering plants get going but need replacing every few years if you want to keep a good ratio of Summer flowers to leggy growth.

However, by late Summer the tulbughia will have been flowering for some while, and will continue on for another couple of months with their characteristic onion smell gradually taking over and dominating the small space, shattering any illusions of harmony and balance.

But that’s for the future, for now it is time to prepare.

Spring Shopping List

  1. 1 pomegranate – variety ‘Provence’ see above
  2. 1 rosa Glauca (syn.Rubrifolia) – a European native rose with single flowers and intense red hips
  3. Dropmore purple – these will need watching as I am pushing them to their extremes – they prefer life at the edge of water so I’m planting with water retentive perlite
  4. Verbena Bonariensis  – some are destined for the allotment as they attract pollinating insects long into late Summer
  5. Gaura – wisely or not I’m trusting that the white gaura planted in recent years will continue to come back so with some reservations I’ve gone for the pink
  6. Herbs of all sorts including lemon verbena another mainstay – my oldest is 5/6 years old and may not last much longer but has a craggy beauty and already has leaf buds ready to burst into life.
  7. Scabious – which like it dry but are relatively shortlived in (my) pots.

Lastly, ladybird larvae – an expensive aid in the battle to control the blackfly attracted to the cherry tree on the allotment.


And beyond price this week, the second week in February, in the sunshine, I saw my first bee of the season – a solitary bee I think, and today a few days later my first ladybird, perhaps out and about too early, but very welcome.

I never did get round to studying the life habits of solitary bees in detail but thanks to the internet I have learned that there are over 200 species of solitary bees, which do not produce honey, do not live in hives and do not have a queen. They are nevertheless important pollinators, the males have no sting and they emerge in the Spring. Some nest in cavities and it seems that last year’s gift of two ‘bee hotels’ for my birthday early in the year may have been occupied later on, so double thanks. I hope many more will emerge as we enter Spring. However, I now read that researchers at the University of Reading have drawn attention to the risks of plants flowering earlier as a result of climate change, too early for the insects that pollinate them – a ‘temporal mismatch’. Worryingly my rosemary bushes have been in flower since December. On the other hand the risk from common bee predators such as bears, racoons and skunks is vanishingly small on my fourth floor roof garden in the southern borders of London.

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  1. A wonderful read, as usual. Thank you Ann, for sharing with us the delights of your balcony-garden. Your text helps me to appreciate what is on my doorstep, but also makes me long for the scent of lavender, thyme and Rosemary – in the wild !!!

  2. Beware of Pomegranates! On a memorable holiday in Turkey we saw Pomegranates being harvested. They were huge and a crate of them is heavy but the robust women of Turkey seemed to show no difficulty in carrying a couple on their backs while the men looked on.

  3. Beware of Pomegranates! On a memorable holiday in Turkey we saw Pomegranates being harvested. They were huge and a crate of them is heavy but the robust women of Turkey seemed to show no difficulty in carrying a couple on their backs while the men looked on.

    • Thank you for your very optimistic comment – to have a couple of fruits seems to be almost too much to hope for, but I’m aware I will have to be patient as there won’t be any likelihood of fruit for a couple of years.

Plants and Plans


A Plot with a View

For the moment the heavy grey skies, and warmish days of recent times, have given way to very welcome brighter wintry sunshine with perhaps less welcome snow forecast, at least further North, as temperatures plunge later in the week.

But for now everything seems to have come alive – in reality because of the warm weather even the Mediterranean herbs, such as thyme, are enjoying the sunshine, (somewhat prematurely) as are the tulbaghia, alongside clematises in bud and the Mediterranean shrubs and trees (bay, rosemary and olives) also in fine fettle basking in the warmth and unfazed by the wind.

Looking around I’m reminded that roses need to be pruned, salvias and other herbaceous plants will need to be cut back in due course and there will be a major rearrangement of pots and containers as the Spring flowers give way to other blooms. But for now all that can wait as once again I enjoy all the sensory delights that my high rise postage stamp sized plot can offer, with the promise of much more.

Meanwhile very many thanks for all your recent comments and reflections.

Gardening aloft is obviously much more than a country mile away from gardening with a vegetable patch to hand (rather than an allotment at a distance) and can’t compare with beautifully planted flower borders, and trees with space to grow, but it has its compensations.






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A Chance Remark


Earlier in the week dawn broke with thick fog obscuring the school buildings next door and the tall lime trees framing the building’s main lawn. Temporarily cut off, as is the way of things, the tree tops gradually re-appeared, followed by the familiar views of neighbouring buildings as well as the sound of passing traffic. Not much at the moment as this part of South West London, like so many other places, has in large part shut down. Our nearby Italian restaurant, the place we have gone to in all sorts of moods and moments, is closed now and won’t re-open until the New Year. The staff hope to reach Italy to be with their families, and we wonder if we will ever experience their warm welcome again.

Yesterday, December 21st was the longest night of the year, the Winter solstice, for those of us living in the Northern hemisphere. A predictable turning point. The days will now slowly lengthen, imperceptably at first, but nevertheless I’m aware that the certainty of the year turning, and Spring a measurable distance away, has been particularly significant this year as last, as so many familiar certainties have been overturned in one way or another.

Meanwhile, today we have bright wintry sunshine and I’ve added watering to my pre-Christmas ‘to do’ list, not so much by way of rescuing the windswept containers out in the open, but as a life-saver for the plants, including well established roses and cistus, in the containers in the rain-shadow, close to the building and under the overhang of the industrial roof. The original was lost to fire when hit by an incendiary bomb in the last war, taking with it the whole top floor, once a formidable construction with Gothic ambitions, including extraordinarily steeply pitched roofs and elaborate gables. The much later conversion of the Edwardian red-brick, disused shell, from educational to domestic use, included the addition of a new roof with plain, rather featureless replacement flats immediately underneath. What they may lack in ornate architecture they have gained by having far-reaching views and space for gardening with all the rewards of a personal outdoor space for socialising and more particularly the sensory pleasures of a plant filled space.

Aiming High

One advantage of living at altitude (on the fifth floor to be exact although this includes the internal staircases within the ground floor duplex flats which go unrecognised by the lift and the communal landings) with the main balcony partially covered by the overhanging roof and leading off the main bedroom, is that at this height and with no other tall buildings nearby, drawing the curtains or pulling down blinds is an optional extra. So on waking I generally see a carefully selected group of plants immediately in front of the sliding doors with majestic tree tops and the nearby church spire beyond. In truth there are the multipurpose playgrounds of the modern secondary school in-between but these are well below my eyeline first thing in the morning.

Some are established containers with loyal contents such as salvias and hellebores which I move round with the seasons. Other pots are picked for their transient interest (bulbs at this time of year ready for Spring) as well as larger plants that prefer to huddle close to the warmth and shelter of the building to avoid the worst of the westerly winds and driving rain, which in the Winter months can easily upset the gentle equilibrium aloft. Unexpectedly however, some pelegoniums (more familiarly known as geraniums, and not to be confused with hardy geraniums) which are still right out in the open, with night-time temperatures dropping to 4 degrees or below (I live with someone who likes precise data and has an indoor/outdoor temperature gauge) have just struggled into flower again, retaining their customary vivid pink but without the profusion of high Summer.

A number of relatively large plants and shrubs including olives, eucalyptus, bay and rosemary, as well as the deciduous euonymous europaeus ‘Red Cascade’, are in semi-permanent positions around the perimeter of the roof garden. However, I hadn’t realised until it was pointed out to me by an observant visitor, to what extent it is their height that somehow ‘makes the space’. I know what she meant, although of course not everyone will agree, and I have bought another plant with the boundary in mind. This time an evergreen escallonia ‘Peach Blossum’, which I am pleased to read is rabbit resistant, and which I acquired when visiting the award winning Burncoose nursery not far from the coast in Cornwall. The growing conditions in the gardens of the South West of England have little in common with balconies in the South West of London, but armed with a bag of ericaceous compost to accomodate its Ph preferences, and planted in a protected corner, I am hoping it will do well.

I have been lucky with other plants that shouldn’t like the local conditions and I do recommend experimentation. I also suggest that when buying or creating obelisks or other structures for climbing plants, go big or certainly go tall, as tall structures are more impressive, certainly up aloft; against wide skies they look good even when un-clad and maybe cheaper in the long run. And as someone who enjoys looking up at other roof gardens and balconies as I wander through our local urban landscape, hoping for treetops and other signs of plant life and horticultural interest, which in turn will contribute to albeit a rather fragmented green corridor amidst the turmoil and intensity of city life.

Which of course touches on some of the significant differences between gardening on a small area of roofing material, in a more traditional urban garden space or in a expansive country garden. Everything is imported; pots, plants, compost, plant supports and plant food. Watering is by hand for the most part and there is a high price to pay for neglect as feeding too (seaweed based in my case) is essential for survival or certainly to flourish. The greener options of home-maid comfrey, which has an appalling smell, or nettle feed, are inpractical and would overstretch the tolerance of my very patient partner in life, and the end product of the communal compost bins is understandably destined for the gardens below.

The pollinators come and linger on late into the Autumn; other beneficial insects too, with ladybirds in particular being well established visitors. The plants keep the building noticeably cooler, herbs grow happily close at hand and the balcony, weather permitting, is an ever present sanctuary. Not a walled garden, and not working with nature as you might in a proper garden but a personally created more or less enclosed space with beauty, scent and interest, as well as visiting birds, and all outside the bedroom window. I commend the endeavour to anyone willing to put up with the inevitable trail of compost, plant debris and other unavoidable waste that accompanies the periodic planting or tidying projects, all of which has to be carried across pale fitted carpets, past precious treasures and along rather cluttered passages before reaching the lift and disposal beyond.

But all is transient and fleeting, without the possibility of planting for future generations, although I mitigate the regret that I can’t plant anything longer lasting by introducing anything oversized, but still transportable and productive, or popular with pollinators, to the allotment whenever possible.

Mellow Yellow

Once upon a time I bought a very short canary yellow Summer coat to wear to a friend’s wedding. I knew at the time it was a mistake. Versions of that coat can still be seen on old 60s movies – but probably not at a rather conventional wedding in the Home Counties. Yellow stands out, which makes it wonderfully welcome early in the year as daffodils followed by primroses then buttercups light up the yet to be greened up spaces in gardens, meadows and on motorway margins. But it’s a difficult colour as the year progresses, particularly in small spaces, as rather like my eye-catching coat it can be very distracting when really the spotlight should be directed elsewhere.

So I now eschew yellow roses or calendula and keep to well honed colour tones that sit happily together. These albeit conventional choices of whites, pinks with soft mauves and purples are reliable, dependable and flatter the space without demanding too much attention and happily cohabit with the occasional apricot rose or shocking pink salvia to add a bit of spice to the mix.

However, the person I live with likes bright colours (although even he would probably have thought my yellow coat was a step too far) but interestingly it appears he sees colour rather differently from me. Not conventionally colour blind but with a flatter perception of colour, so that intermingling leafy greens come across as dull. I’ve written before about my father who planted pots with ever more vivid shades of bright red, almost scarlet, as he grew older, and his eyes dimmed, and my brother who has a specific eye condition which also reduces his capacity to appreciate soft colour combinations.

But regrettably, there are limits to my generosity with ‘pops of colour’ or brighter flowering combinations. I try, but it’s a struggle. Eye catching bulbs promising brightly coloured flowers are put aside, yellow narcissi are replaced by elegant white thalia and vivid (garish) yellow forsythia doesn’t get a look in. Instead the mainstay of my bulb planting this year are snakeshead fritillaria, with nodding flower heads, generally in soft shades of purple.

This year I’ve even been cautious with the tulips and gone for very soft pinks which I’m already beginning to question. And as to the wisdom of planting snakeshead fritillaria, a plant happiest in meadows, they do flower well for a season or so in containers, but I failed in my attempt to grow them from seed a year or so ago.

The National Garden Scheme

As with life, so with visiting gardens, so much I might have given more time to.

I’ve dipped in and out of the yellow book, the Garden Visitors Handbook, over the years and certainly haven’t visited enough. I did though man (or womanned) a cake stall many years ago in support of some lovely London gardens running down to the Thames and open to the public. It was indeed a long time ago and my memory, maybe false, is of a riverside path somehow dividing the part of the gardens closest to the houses from lower sections which ran down to the river’s edge, with the cake stall just outside a wooden structure, which I think was a garage but of course that would suggest a road rather then a path. It’s probable that my recollections of the geography are very wide of the mark, while the gardens, of a certain type, were more likely to be spot on: well cared for, beautiful spaces with roses at the heart of things.

There were perhaps three or four along this particular stretch of the north bank of the Thames. I wasn’t responsible in any way for providing the cakes, but with a friend was quite good at encouraging people to enjoy them, while glimpsing very enviously, at the gardens all around. Meanwhile as I write, black poplar trees are being carefully planted along the water’s edge on the south bank more or less opposite. It is a declining species in the UK and ‘grows best in boggy conditions, near ditches and flood plains’ so should be well suited to the often water logged land adjacent to the footpath.

All of which leaves me hoping for enough winter sun-shine to enjoy gardens of all sorts, although this will tend to be brief glimpses as I pass by, while also hoping for enough winter rain to boost the survival rate of all newly planted trees hereabouts and elsewhere.

The charity’s interactive, digital booklet entitled The Little Yellow Book of Gardens and Health is packed with stories and case studies from garden owners, garden visitors and beneficiaries who have found solace and improved health and wellbeing by immersing themselves in nature.

I grew up in the metroland of John Betjeman, a woody area with generously sized houses, Edwardian mostly, that had arrived with the extension West of the Metropolitan line. The gardens had been designed with horses and carriages in mind and often included swimming pools or tennis courts, although ours had long since been grassed over. The former front door had become the door to the main lawn while the side of the house was gravelled to better suit the arrival of motor-cars and the requirement to build a garage. To this day the space given to motor cars is, I’ve heard, over-generous, but much more absorbing were stories about the blacksmith who used to work under the enormous elm tree at the bottom of the garden and the edited first hand accounts of the first World War from our heroic gardener who had spent four years as a gunner in the trenches.

After the war, and married to his childhood sweetheart, this highly intelligent, kind and wise man, who had missed out on formal education, completed an agricultural training scheme, one of many horticultural and agricultural projects aimed at helping demobbed soldiers adjust to post war life and improving ‘veterans’ health and their prospects’. Sue Stuart-Smith touches on the value of these courses in her book ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, which I have mentioned before. If you have not already done so I urge you to buy it, read it and pass it on.

The National Garden Scheme has long since recognised the value of visiting beautiful, interesting and very personal gardens. It has supported a range of training schemes as well as advocating the value of practical gardening tasks in the recovery from both psychological and physical challenges and has also raised over £63 million  for Hospice UK.

For anyone who hasn’t got a copy of the yellow book to hand, more personal entries with details of gardens that are periodically open to the public under the National Garden Scheme, can be found on Instagram. If you are in reach of the East Riding  you might like to follow Helen Marsden @marsdengarden. She and her husband have created a garden, ponds with woodland and grazing on a sixteen acre site.

So an enviably different scale from my small roof terrace and different again from the scale of the planetary system which governs the Winter solstice, and which if interested can be explored in greater detail by surfing the internet at

I hope you enjoy exploring your own world in brief moments, on your own or with others, over the festive season.

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  1. What an interesting autobiography! I heard on the radio this week that daylight on Dec. 22 would be 22 seconds longer than daylight on Dec. 21 which though not very significant is nevertheless a sign in the right direction. In our garden on Wimbledon at ground level we have a hydrangea still in flower and not yet lost it’s leaves but it’s probably warmer than yours at 5th floor. I did look in the RHS annual book for 5th floor gardens to visit but found none. Just now I am in Galway where the day is 3/4 hour later than back home and I wonder if that affects plants growth?
    We look forward now to what Spring will bring us!
    With love

    • Many thanks for your comment and the interesting details regarding the incremental changes in day length, now we are past the shortest day, as well as the later sunsets as you move West. I’m aware that gardening articles in print or other media often do comment on the later planting times in Spring / early Summer as you move north, but I hadn’t really given the horticultural implications of moving further West any thought until now. Instead I’ve rather taken for granted the familiar early arrival in London of Spring flowers that have been grown and picked in the Scilly Isles.

      • This was lovely to read and I have ordered the Sue Stuart Smith book and asked Helen Marsden if I can follow her. If you get many sunsets like that photo I’m not sure you need any pops of colour!

        Doesn’t the Gulf Stream has a lot to do with milder west coast gardens? Inverewe garden in Wester Ross in Scotland has an amazing collection of exotic plants which would certainly succumb here in Yorkshire. Whether those warm currents are going to survive climate change is another matter.
        Happy New Year

  2. Happy New Year.
    At last I have had the time to read your wonderful article. I have it fascinating and am so intrigued how you manage to garden in those conditions. I love the story of your yellow coat.

Summer’s End


                  …………..’later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,’         John Keats: To Autumn

There is always more to learn, and having thought I might begin with a brief reference to the start of Autumn I now understand that this date will depend on whether you refer to the meteorological system, based on the Gregorian calendar, which divides the year into four seasons of three full calendar months with Autumn beginning on the first of the month. But not so if you use the astronomical system which is based on the position of the autumnal equinox (equal night) or Spring equinox, when the equator is at the point when it is the part of earth closest to the sun, this year 22nd September in London apparently, although I understand there is room for disagreement about the exact date.

Of course the seasons, and in particular Autumn and Spring, lose their identity as you move round the globe. As I have mentioned previously my neighbour, originally from Colombia, is very familiar with our Summer weather, since it is similar to Bogotá’s year round climate, closer to the equator but at a much higher altitude and excellent for growing orchids which pop up opportunistically across the city.

I tend to think of the time when I wind down my efforts with the highly valued and indispensible but complicated watering system, and old (green plastic so not very green) watering can, as marking the end of Summer. Essential as it is to keep the vulnerable larger shrubs and trees supplied with adequate water, in truth there is a moment, sometime after the longest day, when nurturing and tending the balcony gives way to pleasure and enjoyment, without the fretting of earlier in the year.

I have a memory, maybe a false memory as I have chosen not to check because I certainly had the thought, of writing lyrically, and rather presumptiously, last year of late Summer tumbling into early Autumn with roses and other flowers continuing to bloom happily in their high rise accomodation long into the colder days.

However, this year has been very different with long dry spells alternating with driving rain resulting overall in more greenery and fewer flowers as the blooms of choice prefer hotter and dryer conditions. In truth opportunities for sitting outside and enjoying the setting have been fewer and often far between with an excess of wind and rain keeping us indoors.

The abundant foliage has nevertheless looked rather good from the inside looking out and has continued to gladden my heart. A late second showing of gaura (Gaura lindheimeri ‘The Bride and ‘Flamingo Pink) still in flower and a particular favourite, with some loyal roses in bloom too, and salvias which are best enjoyed in early evening as the temperature drops and their scent rises, have lingered on much to my delight.

Harvest Feast

Since early Summer weekends have generally included a visit to the allotment in order to rendezvous with the now 11 year old enthusiastic gardening grandson and more often that not, my very knowledgeable sister-in-law too. It’s been quite challenging on various fronts as we have each had rather different agendas which have inevitably occasionally clashed. He has had various enthusiasms over the growing season – strawberries which were an early success, while cucumbers were a later triumph after considerable patience and much perseverance at the germination stage, when the absence of a green house and the limits of window sills were exposed. However, in stepped my better equipped sister-in-law who came to the rescue.

But the 11 year old’s first love is for ‘prize winning’ pumpkins and the possibility of producing a pumpkin heavier than any grown by our neighbouring allotmenteer. So to this end additional strips were commandeered to grow any number of pumpkins in the hope that one would be ‘the one’, additional manure was incorporated, a number of different planting sites were considered and so on until out of the blue one particularly large pumpkin emerged which after further nurturing weighed in at 25 kgs – not enough to win the contest with our neighbour but nevertheless impressive and a spur to greater things next year, subject to some negotiation with regard to how many strips can be reasonably allocated to pumpkins.

The allotment, not far from the Thames and benefiting from the proximity with good alluvial soil is unfortunately also a good growing medium for Mare’s tails too, and has claimed my attention through much of the Summer. I’ve pined for more time on the balcony and the pleasures of roof top gardening but now in mid-life the balcony can look after itself for considerable periods of time, with a happy ecosystem of plants , pollinators, shade and sunnier sites, with visiting insects too, while I’ve enjoyed playing a part in the 11 year old’s enthusiasm for, and expanding knowledge of, all things horticultural.

Meanwhile the car boot is offering temporary storage to the last of the butternut squashes, the salad drawers in the fridge are full of potatoes, onions are hanging in nets in the shed at the allotment, we have picked our first crop of apples (just two) and I have become a dab hand at raspberry coulis, such has been the profusion of raspberries on the Autumn fruiting canes, while the twittering swallows of Keats’ verse have long since gathered and left these shores.

Late Arrivals

Earlier in the year bees and other pollinators often took a short cut coming through the door onto the balcony and across the bedroom to the roses and clematis (generally of less interest) outside the window. A novel advantage of the dual aspect windows and doors much loved by estate agents and in truth anyone liking light and airy spaces. Wasps, now rather sleepy, and enormous queen bumble bees have been frequent visitors enjoying a rite of passage through the doors between the main balcony and ancillary outdoor spaces and into our conventionally comfortable and appealing home, warmer particularly at night and presumably with welcoming smells from time to time – cooking, indoor plants, scented bath products, who knows. We have also had a visiting bird which presumably came in one sultry night through an open kitchen skylight and out through a narrow gap where a window had been left ajar, leaving behind evidence of it’s frightened and frantic efforts to escape. Any nuts are now put away in a cupboard.

Then much more recently I found a cricket I think, up aloft and no longer alive but an astonishing presence nevertheless. It seems quite remarkable that it should have found its way, perhaps brought by the wind, to a garden space that couldn’t be more unlike the sunny Mediterranean slopes I associate with the sound of crickets on languid days evoking long ago memories and excessive heat. Our visitor might be a tree cricket I read, partial to shrubs of which I have several and nocturnal too. I wait to be informed by others much more knowledgeable than me, and in the meantime will continue to wonder at the astonishing range of plants and insects keen to visit and happy to share my elevated space and our necessarily crowded and somewhat intimate surroundings.

I am fortunate indeed since the roof garden offers a space to step out whenever time, wind and rain allow. The planting is best viewed from the main bedroom, or indeed bed, which is more or less at eye-level with the taller roses, gaura, salvias and the other perrenial plants carefully displayed to distract the eye from the heavy duty railings and nearby modern school-buildings, best glimpsed in snatches as the expanses of  brick and tarmac are all too dominant.

As darkness begins to fall, particularly when the wide open sky has turned red and orange, pink and violet before disappearing altogether the silhouettes of the olives and other trees against the night sky have a particular allure. I recommend standing outside for a few moments as dusk is replaced by darkness accompanied by the gradual appearance of the moon and stars – a Harvest moon maybe at this time of year and perhaps Venus in the West.

Some Reflections on Gardening Aloft

  • It’s difficult to weigh up the credit and debit score on the carbon footprint front as much is imported each season – bags of compost in particular and some replacement plants including herbs and climbers, although in return the Autumn tidy-up contributes valuable green and particularly brown material to the communal compost bin and the insect population seems happy enough
  • Painful as it is after a few years the larger perennials and shrubs, confined too long in a container, need to go. This Autumn has meant letting go of a sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) recommended by a close friend, which has gradually looked more and more unhappy over the last year or so
  • Tulbaghia, on the other hand as I have mentioned before, are extremely happy at altitude, cope with high temperatures, wind, rain and flower from early in the year often up to Christmas. An occasional feed, watering by hand as their dense foliage acts as a green umbrella, and deadheading are all that is required. They forgive periods of neglect and mingle happily in amongst other plants
  • It is well worth struggling to keep the larger plants growing with their backs against the warm walls happy. In return they keep the heat off the building and reduce the indoor temperature. A difference of three degrees was measurable one sunny Summer day between the windowsill temperature immediately behind a substantial rose and clematis combination and a gap in the planting (24 degrees rather than 27 degrees)

Other people often have worthwhile advice, which of course means admitting to yourself you still have much to learn which is one of the rewards of gardening but not always easy. However, I have now learnt the secret of growing Caryopteris on the balcony – prune hard in the Autumn and they will stay a reasonable size. This advice from another gardening friend was very timely as one strip at the allotment was in danger of becoming a retirement home for elderly Caryopteris. Now I have a beautiful shrub on the balcony which I will keep well pruned, and hopefully healthy and happy, both for my enjoyment and as a late season treat for the bees.

And Finally

I have happily found myself returning to the pleasures of thinking ahead and wondering what bulbs to buy, noting the gardens I’d like to visit and musing on the business of gardening with all its accompanying vicissitudes.

I’m not quite sure where gardening might stand in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but certainly for me, as this stage of my life, it has clear physiological benefits and, albeit sometimes in very small ways, gives me a sense of achievement too.

That said I lost out to the 11 year old in the tomato growing competition initiated by another family member who very kindly gave us two vintage variety plants early in the year. As these were the first tomatoes I have grown on the balcony getting the silver medal feels pretty good.

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Dust to Dust

From the Big Bang to the Back Garden

The familiar and virtuous cycle of gathering vegetable peelings, garden waste (withered plants, prunings or Autumn leaves) and allowing them to take their time, suitably assembled, before emerging as a brown crumbly desirable substance several months later to add to garden loam or potting mixtures, is one thing.

And even this is not without its challenges, as plastic seems to infiltrate even the greenest of spaces – part of a pink plastic comb arrived on the allotment last week, buried in the manure we were trying to incorporate, and sadly I assume that micro-plastics too have infiltrated our growing spaces. 

But grasping the enormity of the big bang in the creation of our universe, approximately 13.8 billion years ago, and the consequential recycling of the atoms we are all made up of is quite another – a life cycle on an altogether different scale and far beyond my understanding, although the first pictures from the Hubble telescope – incomprehensible, vivid and extraordinarily beautiful – remain unforgettable.

Incontrovertible though it may be, it has taken time for me to grasp the idea that the atoms that make up our bodies, and everything around, once made up a star which, at the end of its life a mere five billion years ago, exploded to release the building blocks of Earth and the other planets in our solar system. From the material world and the plants around us, to the unreachable stars in the night sky, all recycled across millenia.

We now know that this is so, and that this truth has also been instilled in many of us in ancient graveside rituals and the familiar mantras of church services – ‘ashes to ashes , dust to dust’, ‘for dust you are and to dust you will return’.

Our own small world has been ever more pre-occupying over recent weeks as the balcony has moved from Spring to Summer, with the assistance of more bags of compost than you might imagine a small roof garden could make use of, as well as several trips to the local garden centres struggling to ensure that supplies keep up with demand.

However, an absence of  butternut squash seedlings, much needed as my carefully reared plants were hit by a particularly viscious cold wind that the temporary bubble wrap cold frame was unequal to, will leave a void. A rearrangement of the larger containers also became a priority in an attempt to provide an adequate wind break and fill the gaps left by the dying horse chestnuts opposite. By late Summer last year these had become too dangerous to leave in situ, but once felled, the plants and those of us familiar with the pleasures of our garden in the sky were left fully exposed to the westerly winds.

The allotment too has demanded attention in the interval between the arrival of welcome warmer weather and before the Mare’s tails completely take over, at which point the larger plants such as courgettes and raspberries fend for themselves and in turn swamp the Mare’s tails. The effort to keep on top of the forest of Mare’s tails continues until early August, when calm is restored as they begin to retreat.

Wild life of a different sort is threatening two newly planted trees below – a flowering cherry and a tulip tree are at risk as foxes have taken to nightly visits, digging near the young trunks and exposing the roots. Meanwhile above, on the East facing passage, aphids are in charge, and reaching the water supply now involves a particularly complicated manoeuvre. This includes ducking under a standard rose (Boscobel, as it happens, with beautiful coral-pink flowers), itself beleaguered with greenfly, to reach the tap by which time my hair has usually got entangled in the aphids’ sticky residue, which is only partially compensated for by the beautifully scented blooms close at hand.

At the allotment the cherry leaf curl is the outward and visible sign of a preponderance of blackfly, but there the associated sticky residue has become a magnet for bumble bees, apparently happily enjoying the sweet supply.

Why Do the Bumble Bees Cross the Bedroom?

. . . . . To reach the flowers on the other side.

However, a brief mention of these bedroom invaders was trumped yesterday after a leisurely lunch with close friends, each recounting more telling examples of the  clash between urban life-styles and local wild-life. Tales of foxes, squirrels and pigeons being in turn trumped by an account of well-adapted badgers ‘widespread in London’s outer suburbs’ where they grow to be ‘slightly larger than their country cousins’.

All this has come as a bit of a surprise – my only encounter with a badger being in a country lane in Cornwall.

A garden in the sky has much in its favour, and I will now add an absence of unwelcome trespassers, and a safe distance from marauding badgers, to the list of assets. But planting in an area confined to a largely brick and concrete setting does mean missing out on the happy association between areas of wilderness and cultivation, although it is still well worth the effort. Plants that like to spread struggle in pots, but on the whole it is well worth trying to grow anything you like in good quality compost with enough water and plant food to compensate for the cramped conditions. Mediterranean shrubs and small trees are happy enough if they are near  a warm wall, but English native shrubs and small trees want to be released into the wild after a short stay in the Metropolis.

Nevertheless the painful reality is that it is a very small space.

And the expression on visiting friends’ faces from time to time betrays their shock and surprise at being confronted by such densely planted containers, now reaching peak performance on the balcony, which is in part my attempt to soften the exposed site.

I have mentioned before that succumbing less to temptation and employing a little more restraint might be a good way forward.

Meanwhile I have just had a delivery of Dropmore purple (Lythrum virgatum) – five plants to be exact. It is a new plant to me and is, I read, named after Dropmore House, home to Lord Grenville, who as Prime Minister pushed through the law abolishing the slave trade. In itself a good reason for selecting this plant, but its intense purple-red flower spikes, and attraction to bees drawn to the supply of nectar well into late Summer, is another good reason.

Everything’s Coming up Roses

Although the converted Edwardian School, built in the vanguard of the 1902 Education Act, and on which the roof garden and I perch, is now reconfigured into various flats, we occupy a space once part of the original top floor and roof space which would have dominated the area around. For a while the biology labs were placed aloft, but by the time of the redevelopment in the late 1990s the brief was for a less ambitious affair and an industrial roof (the sort that has been used for years to top factories and now with a rather beautiful patina) has been used instead of roof tiles.

Tastes and times differ but I rather like the mixture of history and the undoubted industrial quality of the roof. Who knows what will occupy the roof garden in future years; built as a school it was used as the headquarters of the ‘National Relief Fund’ during the First World War and the headquarters of the Home Guard in 1940 before later being hit by incendiary bombs, which burnt out the whole of the top floor.

In the early years the school apparently had very beautiful ‘Italianate’ gardens with pergolas and lily ponds. Gardening lessons were a prominent feature of the curriculum.

I’m not sure that my over crowded containers would meet with approval, but the early summer roses have been beautiful, plentiful and have assured the arrival of bumbles bees and other pollinators in ever larger numbers. A few weeks on and the flowers are fading fast and beginning to shrink at the edges but there is plenty more to come.

My particular favourites are the tall floaty flower stems such as gaura and verbena bonariensis, held together by lemon verbena which I grow for its craggy shape and assistance as a plant support.

Gardening Notes

The tulbughias of all sizes thrive in pots, veronica longifolia is suitable for large gardens but is coming into flower, although in its cramped conditions will struggle to keep going, and if you are an optimist by nature you might try keeping scabious in pots from year to year, although the number and quality of the flowers may deteriorate.

Meanwhile I have increased the number of thalictrum plants around the edge of the balcony. They are at the half-way stage at the moment. The leaves are looking healthy and like the lemon verbena doing a great job of supporting other plants. The flower spikes are already about three or four feet high and as one reached eight feet last year I am hoping for another dramatic, delicate display. Underneath, the lavenders are struggling to get their fair share of sunlight and the bees are heading for the nepeta, somewhat hidden amongst the greenery.

And so it goes ………. soon it will be mid-Summer






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  1. I am a big fan of compost making but it’s never led me to philosophical thoughts sadly.
    The balcony all looks very lovely. It seems to be a very good year for roses everywhere.
    Gord says your bumble is a tree bumble (bombus hypnorum) . They only appeared in the UK in 2001 but are now widespread. They are currently doing a great job pollinating our raspberries. His honey bees are elsewhere but busy I hope as they ate all their honey in the very wet cold May.

    • Very many thanks for your comment. This coming Winter might be the moment when I do get round to doing some homework on bumble bees. Bombus hypnorum is a wonderful name but at the moment keeping the bumbles out of the flat is a time-consuming occupation. I assume they are in search of warmth as London has been very cold and damp over the last few days.
      Thanks too for your thoughts about the balcony – I’m very glad you think it looks lovely, although it did become completely impassable after last week’s rain so I’ve done a bit of staking and trimming in between the showers.

Greening Up


At the start of the First World War my mother’s family moved from Hull to Scarborough, then a small coastal town in the North Riding of Yorkshire, to avoid the anticipated German bombardments likely to be targeted on the large fishing ports of Hull, where the family business was based, and Grimsby further South. However, the town did not escape; in fact Scarborough was attacked on December 16th, 1914, resulting in 137 people dying, and many more seriously injured, as well as considerable damage to property. Later in the war there were also a number of destructive Zeppelin raids on Hull but with significantly less loss of life.

It’s hard to predict the future.

I tend to over estimate the number of plants I can find space for as well as how many pots I can maintain in more or less good enough condition. Later in the year I often come to regret the casualties – over crowded containers, plants hidden from view and new favourites struggling to establish themselves. I am resolved to do better.

Gardens are Made by Sitting in the Shade to misquote

Confined indoors at the start of the year, except for essential shopping and exercise, from time to time I took recourse to one of my favourite pastimes, namely ordering plants, while paying heed to my self-imposed injunction. Anticipating the growing season is always a pleasure and was a particularly welcome distraction from the permitted ‘Lockdown’ exercise which could all too easily remind me of the tedium of compulsory walks at school. These followed more or less the same route every Sunday afternoon so were never a great favourite of mine. Even worse were route marches led by my father up and down Welsh Mountains in the middle of August, but with mist never very far away.

Fortunately the climb up ninety-five stairs from front door to flat door has been available come rain or shine throughout the Lockdown and beyond, and if weary can include a pause to take in the distant sights across the Thames with the familiar profiles of the BT Tower, the ‘Gherkin’, ‘Shard’ and Canary Wharf amongst the iconic buildings in view.

However, as the days began to lengthen, and after a bit of pottering aloft – watering one or two powder-dry pots in the rain shadow, pulling up one or two unidentifiable twiggy remnants from last Summer and moving a couple of containers to better display their wares, we surprisingly found ourselves from time to time sitting on the balcony, drinking tea and basking in wintry sunshine. Tips of tulips just visible (later this year than sometimes, but maybe I planted later varieties) the rosemary coming into full flower and bizarrely the mallow pushing out new buds until it finally exhausted itself to be replaced by the hellebores offering their beautiful flower heads to passing insects.

And again today, a few weeks on, the sun is up and yet more leaf buds and plants have eagerly responding by coming back into life after the Winter dormancy. The eagerness may, of course, be problematic as we are due for another battering with predicted harsh chill winds and heavy rain heading towards us over the next forty eight hours, but it is undeniably heartening to see the trees beginning to green up and to enjoy the early blossom all around.

All of which reminds me once again that keeping a note-book (as distinct from buying a notebook of which I have many) for planting details – varieties, timings, successes and failures would be invaluable, but like the diaries of my youth never gets beyond the first few pages. I periodically draw up planting plans with carefully sketched out pots and containers, borrowed felt-tips colouring in the dominant plants and the various gaps ready for new ideas. Unfortunately the gaps are always smaller than they appear on paper and my eagerly anticipated projects are often confronted with the disappointing realities of limited space and inclement weather.

Meanwhile as Winter is unsurprisingly returning briefly all gardening ambitions are once again confined to the imagination. This just as I was getting back into the swing of heaving pots, feeding (probably prematurely) and watering, as well as cutting back or jettisoning the plant/pot combinations that have run their course, or enjoying a chance observation, a moment when something unexpected catches my eye or needs attention. All of which brings rich rewards, often surprisingly disproportionate to the task in hand.

One such moment came along this morning when uncertainties of various sorts – would the planned recovery vehicle arrive as expected and take our disappointingly malfunctioning new electric car to the garage (it didn’t), what to do about reserving tables when eating out is once again allowed, how to frame a difficult e-mail (still not sure) were somewhat pre-occupying, and certainly a distraction from the wider world and all its concerns.

Walking past the door leading to one of the smaller outdoor spaces I spotted a limp strand of trailing ivy dangling from one of the small pots forming a collection on the plant table outside. A moment’s work to break off the damaged greenery, twist the pot round, check the neighbouring pots and pop back indoors – but my frame of mind had in those instants changed to a more thoughtful, creative state. How so? Physiologically, psychologically much to wonder about and understand. And much is being written at the moment about the natural world and it’s impact on, and interaction with, our emotional life.

In a study cited in her book ‘The Art of Rest’ Claudia Hammond, broadcaster and presenter of  Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’,  writes of the the value of gardening and green spaces and mentions too the significance of micro-experiences, such as looking at photos of the natural world  for forty seconds or so, equivalent to my moment on the balcony, which may, or I would say often do, have an unexpected and enhancing impact.

An Urban Treasure

The building is about twenty metres in height and exposed to the westerly winds. The roof garden consists of a larger (it’s all relative) rectangular area of about thirteen square metres, which faces South South West, basking in any available sun and accessed through the main bedroom – a joy to look out at through all the seasons but inconveniently far away from the kitchen and the coffee maker.

There is also a more or less equivalent area made up of four much smaller planted areas outside the remaining doors and windows to the outside world. They face different aspects so are sheltered or exposed to the prevailing easterly or westerly winds, but all are life-enhancing, awkward extensions to the main balcony. The planting gap between the windows and the parapet wall is narrow (squeezing past to get from one dustbin sized container to another is challenging and involves clambering out of a window first) and the windows are wide, rather than tall, with sills at waist height.

It took me a while to realise that if you want all year round interest from the comfort of indoors the right combination of tall plants in tall containers works best, and if they spread a little happiness along the heavy duty railings all the better. With this in mind the easterly facing planting corridor has clematis, a variety of roses including an elderly rambler, a much more recently purchased standard rose not generally my preference but perfect when it comes to offering blooms at waist height and above, with the stem out of sight, and a china rose, rosa mutabilis, which really came into its own last Summer. These also co-habit with E Nicholii, a small eucalyptus with a lovely drooping habit and feathery leaves, so the overall effect is not unlike a miniature glaucous (a recently acquired adjective I don’t have enough opportunities to use) weeping willow.

                                                                                                 Also soon to be replaced salvias which didn’t do well last year and will have to give way to another clematis, clematis a. ‘Apple Blossom’, evergreen this time, which offers scent and spreadability too and a mass of pale pink flowers in March/April – although I might have to wait a year or too for a really generous display.

I’m sure roses would always prefer to be in open ground, and they do need to be fed and watered attentively, but with the oldest at over 15 years old and the most recent bought last Autumn I’m strongly in favour of planting roses of all sorts in containers, even on a wind-swept terrace. In fact particularly in a wind-swept spot. They like the airiness, their roots can adapt surprisingly well to the cramped conditions, they flower prolifically and are disease free. Nothing smaller than a dustbin is recommended for housing roses by the venerated Irish gardener, Helen Dillon, but you can get away with offering less favourable accommodation if you have run out of space and can then compensate with regular attention.

The sheltered South facing area has archetypal silver leaved ‘Mediterranean’ plants including lavenders, cistus, rosemary and olives, which actually after a while seem to prefer the colder, exposed damp conditions on the main balcony.

However, the conditions in the fourth area are hard to define. South West facing but surrounded on three sides by the framework of the building and the parapet wall on the fourth, it is alternately in the rain shadow offered by the overhanging roof, in shade, in bright sunshine or facing the brunt of a Westerly gale depending on the precise trajectory of the incoming weather. Planting here has largely been a succession of failed experiments although unexpectedly the current combination of hellebores, ivies, and elderly lavenders seem to be flourishing. It’s an area at the end of a corridor between bedrooms so only really seen in passing rather than claiming attention while I’m sitting, eating, musing or otherwise preoccupied.

After Thoughts

Many thanks for the e-mails and comments which add to my gardening knowledge and are often incorporated into my future planting plans: the sweet smelling box, sarcococca, that was suggested to me a couple of years ago, has been spectacular this year and encouraged by another reader I will plant a caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly blue’ in a large vacated pot and then prune heavily at the end of next Winter.

But very sadly no bumble bees yet – several queens attempted to come indoors during January, but very unusually no bumbles have been sighted since taking advantage of the occasional warm days to feast on the nectar and pollen provided by the rosemary flowers, now gone over.

My first visit to the allotment this year led to a brief conversation with the ten year old family gardening enthusiast as he too was worried about the missing bumble bees, but news from a gardening friend in Yorkshire was reassuring – bumbles out and about in good numbers.

Meanwhile thanks to my sister in law I have a purple patch of primulas.





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  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one to start and not get beyond a few weeks with garden diaries and notebooks. In order to get crop rotation I’ve resorted to taking a few photographs each year of the vegetable patch, as by spring I always forget what was where.

    • Thank you for the reminder that ‘a picture’s worth a thousand words’, and perhaps more in my case as my hand-writing quickly descends into the illegible. I was actually thinking along similar lines as the micro-climate on the balcony has been altered by the removal last Autumn of the two elderly and diseased and dying horse chestnut trees, which had previously acted as a wind-break giving some protection from wild weather from the West.

      So a photographic record of what’s happy this season, and what needs re-thinking, is probably going to be a good idea although surprisingly the olive trees are still looking healthy and perhaps finding the increased light levels through the early part of the year a bonus.

  2. Hello Ann, nice to think of you enjoying your balcony. I just wondered
    whether you plant many bulbs in pots – saw someone on Gardeners’ World
    ages ago planting them in layers to last longer (early ones at the
    Hoping that you are both well, we still miss you! xx Kat3e

    • Thank you so much Kate for your message and comment. It’s always good to know that something sparks an interest and I’m sorry my response is very late in the day.
      I’m sure layering tulips works well but I’ve never quite managed the right combination of height of bulb and sequence of flowering. In my very small space it seems to work better to cram the bulbs in for maximum impact and then move the pot aside as the next variety comes into bloom. Actually although this has been quite successful this year I’ve also made some bad choices and have begun to lose confidence in my bulb selection which has been too experimental at times!
      Large flower heads with very elaborate petal formation and eccentric colour variations look better in the catalogue than on a windswept balcony. Maybe they would look much more effective against a swathe of green grass – the harsh landscape of tiles and tubs, not yet softened by this year’s plant growth, isn’t as forgiving as blossom or nearby greenery.
      But I have discovered that the conditions suit wild strawberries which is very heartening.
      Meanwhile I hope your gardening year gets off to a good start and that the plants in your lovely Summer garden haven’t been checked by the recent chilly weather.
      Thanks again for your comment – it was lovely to hear from you.