Time for a Change

Bare Earth

So the question might be why did the two words ‘#BareEarth’ come together in my mind and linger long enough to start a train of thoughts that meandered through the snatched statistics extracted from reports and communiqués from a recent environmental conference, to the trials and tribulations of allotment gardening and back to my balcony and blog, which began as a somewhat self aggrandizing attempt to reduce the number of bare balconies in my natural habitat of South West London?

In fact, the proportion of local balconies and roof gardens that this season is resplendent with pots and plants of all sorts has steadily increased, and I am pleased to say so has the range of readers of my blog which I am reliably told now includes South Africa, so thank you; but there is of course no connection between the two. And on the balcony at this time of year bare earth would be welcome as I am missing the arrival of sedums to extend and expand supplies of late summer food for visiting insects, as well as add late summer charm. But to find bare earth or an empty pot means ousting something prematurely from its summer residence. Of course things have fallen by the way-side: the chives have all struggled, only one of my treasured lemon verbena plants grew to a mature height, and the strawberries were smothered by pelargoniums and hardy geraniums. While on the allotment bare earth is all too visible as mid-season crops have come and gone and their replacements are still in their infancy.

So the ambition is to become familiar with green manure and perpetual spinach, which I hope lives up to its name, and at this time of year to allow the butternut squash to continue sprawling across neighbouring strips. Allotment plots tend to be divided into strips https://bkthisandthat.org.uk/brief-history-of-allotments-in-england/. We have twelve but at any one time are probably only in full command of eight or nine, unlike our neighbouring allotmenteer who has a number of allotments in this five acre site, in part by way of an informal process of sub-letting. However, he helps the common cause by keeping his whole domain in remarkably full production. The site is surprisingly somewhat undersubscribed but is a haven for birds and insects as well as the resilient and unwelcome Mare’s Tail. By custom, excess fruit and veg is left on a nearby wall for anyone to pick up and enjoy although once the courgette season has passed it is a less reliable food source.

An end of season review would also have to conclude that my first proprietorial year of flower-strip responsibility has been very mixed. Sweet smelling, long lasting and long flowering sweet peas filled the kitchen for several weeks, while a cherry (more fruit than flower of course) and a bush honeysuckle that will hopefully flower this winter, have both been successfully transplanted from the balcony, relieved no doubt that they are now in more appropriate surroundings. The sole survivor of the original group of sunflowers reared aloft has reached the stage of seed production which will hopefully please the birds, but both stocks and cosmos for different reasons were a failure. I selected stocks that were labelled as ‘multi-coloured’ or something of the sort, imagining a mixture of purple, pink and yellow flowers, not quite my taste but unquestionably colourful, not expecting that all three of the differently coloured flower heads would appear Medusa like on one (stunted) plant. I will read the label more carefully another time. The cosmos were planted out too early and never recovered, but a late crop of radicchio has formed a pretty pink circle at the foot of the cherry tree.

Meanwhile, on the balcony, although two of the three olive trees are continuing to put on plenty of extension growth which will need to be watched and in time reduced again, there will be no crop of ripening fruit this year. The intense and persistent summer heat of last year being noticeably absent.

Gaura ‘Karalee White’

Wild Marjoram – Origanum Vulgare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making a bee-line

It is Sunday, and for those who are interested in these things, the fifth and final day of a rain affected Ashes (cricket) match at Lords, a few miles to the North of my cloud- covered balcony. The rain is due in twenty minutes, or so we are told by the attentive cricket commentators, and now the day will be shaped by the adjusted opportunities for  play. But what is more astonishing than the extraordinarily vivid and garish MCC colours, which are a clash of orange and yellow that nature and my favourite garden designers  would do much better, is the tenacious grip that the solitary and bumble bees have on their flowers of choice while the wind gathers force ahead of the wet weather. Do they live amonst the jungle on my roof garden, do they fly up from the well kept but rather sterile communal gardens below, or do they make the journey from further afield? Answers please on a post-card or a comment on the blog.

One of my over-wintering resolutions is to study the different identifying characteristics of the foraging bees that I hope are making some use of my soon to be renovated bee ‘hotels’, due for a re-fit to provide a greater variety of accomodation.

I’m taking as my guide July’s edition of ‘The Garden’ and an article by Jean Vernon based on her new book, ‘The Secret Lives of Garden Bees’ https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/47355575-the-secret-lives-of-garden-bees. Unfortunately, I haven’t got past first base as the whole process of indentification (birds, butterflies and now bees) always has me foxed. The yellow bands of the garden bumblebee (Bombus horturum) look to my untutored eye remarkably similar to the gingery thorax of the common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). I’m more confident that leafcutter bees (Megachile species) have been visiting as evidence of smooth, circular leaf damage is, happily, everywhere.

Fading Glory

The best vantage point for enjoying the plants and associated wild-life on the terrace at this time of year is now, somewhat regretably, often looking out from the main bedroom rather than perching awkwardly amidst the abundant greenery, which I notice includes late-flowering roses and some rather pretty, but largely hidden fuschias. Although forgotten, I hope they will now enhance the late Summer display, but I’m not a huge fan, and didn’t choose wisely and well, so we’ll see. Salvias on the other hand are a favourite and seem to be extremely happy in their varied colours and sizes, reliably coming back year after year and will flower up till Christmas if previous experience is anything to go by.

My wish for time to stand still, for a moment, in these poignant last moments of high summer, lingers alongside thoughts of new possibilities, new planting ideas, new colour combinations. All of which is echoed in the seasonal and herbaceous plants, already beginning the annual retreat, and creating space for the Autumn planting.

Meanwhile the seduction has also begun as catalogues are arriving by post and e-mail, with alluring pictures of gardens in Spring with blossom and bulbs to delight the senses. I began a list a few days ago of the tulip bulbs I wanted to buy, topped by China Town and La Belle Epoque, both of which are good in pots, last a long time and are not too tall for this windy spot. But it seems too early to be writing shopping lists when there is much to enjoy even on this space-limited spot.

I was unsuccessful with snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) last year but a very kind cousin has gathered some seed for me which I hope I can coax into life. Always susceptible to pretty planting combinations I am also hoping to pair the fritillaries (spelling?) with some other slim stemmed Spring flowers in anticipation of the bees next year. Apparently snake’s head fritillaries secrete nectar with a higher sugar concentration than most other bulbs so well worth the effort, and I have the right spot, a long way of course from a riverside meadow, but in good view, in a rather handsome terracotta pot and adequately exposed to the winter rains.

Last Words

Some experimentation is to be recommended – how else would I have discovered that underplanting E Nicholii (my miniature eucalyptus) with thyme and other herbs left to flower through the summer has been a favourite spot for bees and other pollinators. The combination of herbs and delicately fronded tree has been a visual treat as well as a sensory delight with the characteristic smell of eucalyptus oil sometimes mingly gently with the fragrant thyme.

The temptation to cram too many plants into too little space, and than wait to see what happens, has only been a partial success this year as the discrepancy between plants enjoying cooler damp conditions, and those wanting heat and light was this year heavily weighted in favour of those preferring a cooler climate and the gaura in particular lost out.

And I won’t be trying to grow chillies again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. The weather is baking hot again and England have just won at Headingley!

    Honey bees fly up to 3 miles to forage according to Gord. So I suspect most of your bumbles are from afar. Although apparently solitary bees mostly nest in the ground some species do nest in plants and bee hotels. I have noticed that wild bees are much harder workers than honey bees. They get going early, put up with wind and rain and go to bed long after 4 pm which is usually when our bees pack up for the day.

    • Thank you – I now know much more about what the various bees do, but why? A three mile radius from the balcony might involve crossing water but it would certainly involve over-flying railway embankments covered with wild flowers, as well as carefully kept gardens with flowers of all sorts, not forgetting balconies and hanging baskets, so I’m flattered and puzzled that some struggle up aloft when there are plenty of energy saving alternatives nearby. Hover flies and moths come aplenty too but only the very occasional butterfly.

      • Your balcony must smell good. When one bee has found a nice supply the message gets passed on.
        My bee expert tells me that height isn’t much of a problem and that domestic bee mating takes place quite high up, 30-40 ft. Apparently there are areas called drone parks! where the drones hang out hoping to get lucky; or maybe not so lucky as they die after mating. Also very risky if there are swallows and swifts about.

        • This is all fascinating and good to know that the balcony smells nice. I assume all bees have a much finer sense of smell than I do and perhaps the wind, which tends to waft any scents away from the balcony, also help to advertise its whereabouts.
          I have a lot to learn so will need to re-double my efforts on over-wintering bee studies. Meanwhile I have now learnt that, just like chickens, queen bumblebees sit on their eggs in the Spring to incubate them!

  2. Brilliant Annie! Really love reading your words on the blog, our whole garden never seems to match up to your balcony! C u in September for a gardening tutorial……..?

    • Thank you for the compliments which are always lovely to have even if not entirely deserved! The credit should really go to the seaweed fertilizer (sometimes with added iron) and tomato feed, that everything gets when I remember.
      Rather fortunately as things stand there is no room on the balcony for a bucket of rotting comphrey leaves, which is a bit of a relief as the smell might be rather overpowering at close quarters. There may be some comphrey at the allotment but I’ve avoided checking out the surrounding greenery in case there is, as I would then reluctantly feel obliged to use it, although I’m in a bind because I feel bad about not finding out what comphrey looks like, and I know it’s the fertilizer of choice.

A Look is Worth a Thousand Words

(Click on photo to enlarge)

The Art of Compromise

Wandering out in early morning onto the terrace, roof garden, balcony, call it what you will, (even the dictionaries are undecided) at this time of year is to be embraced by flowers and scents, and considerable insect activity, while the visiting birds tend to scatter when I arrive and return when the coast is clear.

My first attemps at growing flowering spires on this windswept high-rise terrace met with failure. I quickly realised that spikes of foxgloves, verbascum, delphiniums or larkspur were all too vulnerable up aloft and even I didn’t attempt hollyhocks, which have self-seeded themselves in my step-mother’s front garden to enviably wondrous effect, with the sun on their faces and the warmth of the brick frontage behind.

So finding ways to add height (and hoping the while for some shelter too) has been a long held ambition and pleasingly has met with some success. Elderly olive trees (well, elderly by the standards of potted plantlife that has criss-crossed southern England) and several clematii on assorted obelisks, have been consistently happy, as has my first Eucalyptus Nicholii, which for the first time in our acquaintance is exuding a wondrous smell of eucalyptus oil and unsurprisingly is sticky to the touch. But there have been plenty of failures too, usually because I’ve asked too much of plants I have, knowingly or otherwise, planted in the wrong situation; subsequently life in a container has been too cramping, or the wind too bracing or the heat too much.

However, I have asked nothing of the three thalictrum plants that remain of the five I planted a couple of years ago and then ignored. This year, even planted in a crowded container, they are thriving and growing upwards apace, bending and weaving in the wind, with the lower flowering stems threading through, and holding on to, the plant life around them.  They are too airy to provide any protection from the wind but the tallest is well over eight foot, which for my diminuitive space is an impressive height, although of course in the greater scheme of things I acknowledge is rather insignificant. In an area with protected plane trees not far away and magnificent limes that now line an escape route from the Metropolis, and look down on the aforesaid balcony, in this city margin I know I can’t really compete.

I am, however, delighted with this unexpected graceful and quietly spectacular beauty, and feel encouraged to grow more statuesque plants than my relatively modest sized containers would suggest. The verbena bonariensis, which are not long livers, and usually somewhat branching, this year are growing ramrod straight and proudly upwards, in defiance of my disinterest, and have now really caught my eye.

So, emboldened I have ordered some Veronicastrum virginicum Lavendelturm, https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/111539/i-Veronicastrum-virginicum-i-Lavendelturm/Details which are really meant for the ‘back of the border’ but once they come will go wherever I find space and that might mean I will be peering through them to the world beyond, which could be an added bonus. And in future I might seek out other late flowering plants for the ‘back of the border’ and plant them at will relying on the surrounding shorter plants to act as stake-holders.

A visiting friend and horticulturalist was impressed, and even more surprised, that I had managed to grow so many flowering plants in the undoubtedly windy conditions. If you can bear the losses and failures along the way and understand that getting to know your particular lofty conditions will dictate your choices, I do commend the effort involved. As a cousin recently observed, I seem to like airy plants with their ephemeral beauty, and I do, but they can also bend in the wind without being snapped off, while the solid brick parapet provides a micro climate and some wind protection for the ‘lower storey’.

I’m not convinced that dividing planting schemes into upper, middle and lower storey is my favourite current convention but it seems to hold sway and I still haven’t achieved the hoped for wind break encircling the seating area – which at this time of year consists of a small table obscured by plants with two chairs buried amongst the greenery.

(Click on photo to enlarge)

(Hover over photo for name)

And so it Came to Pass

Mid-Summer has come and gone and my carefully controlled palette of colour featuring pale pinks, deeper pinks and mauves (having found in previous years that my contrived ‘pops’ of colour didn’t really work) has now given way to brighter colours, together with white penstemon, Anenome ‘Wild Swan’, now on the wane, and a rather hidden burnt orange rose. I even found a some wild strawberries the other day – hopefully the first of many.

As I’ve explained, sitting outside is often curtailed by chilly gusts which find their way through the horticultural defences, and the larger containers on wheel-mounted pot stands have to be rolled out of the way if more than two people want a glass of wine ‘en plein air’. It’s awkward and a far cry from leisurely life in sunny sheltered gardens but astonishingly still worth the journey for a wide variety of insects and bumble bees a plenty, which arrive early and stay late.

Sitting close to the sky with the clouds, galaxies and planets beyond, is a privilege and to be reminded and amazed by the world around us and our infinitely small place in the universe.

Coming back down to earth, and gardening in such a confined space risks becoming a somewhat persecutory experience as imperfections are hard to ignore. No opportunities for mare’s tail up here (Equisetum arvense, an ancient invasive deep rooted perennial which is the occupying and preoccupying weed at the allotment) or couch grass another ground based invader, but oxalis corniculata, creeping wood sorrel, can quickly gain ground in containers and smother small plants trying to gain a foothold. Pretty enough in small doses it nevertheless has to go, or at least be constrained and is best done while sitting within reach of the larger pots, its preferred site, and drinking a cup of coffee.

My father was both a keen gardener and an enthusiast for the great outdoors (Welsh mountains on drizzly days being a favourite) and he had an eye for design. With age I noticed that the subtle changes of tone and texture in his gardens, which I can still remember from younger days, had largely given way to bright coloured pelargoniums standing out in stark contrast to background greenery. To my shame it was a long time before my snobbish sense of taste yielded enough to recognise and realise that as a man in his nineties, with failing eyesight, these were now the colour contrasts available to him.

Worth understanding for the future too, alongside noticing that for others of all ages, with a degree of visual impairment and reduced capacity to discriminate one tone from another, brightness and vivid contrasts can often work best.

For the Moment

I came across some white clover today in amongst some cultivated bee friendly salvias and verbena. Buttercups happily co-habit too with the ornamental planting as well as this year’s wild marjoram.

I also come across a large pebble some distance from the birds’ watering hole – an old stone platter filled with pebbles and regretably topped up with tap water since there are no opportunities hereabouts to access the rain water without taking possession of the communal drain-pipes. By chance, a Radio 4 science programme was discussing the use of tools by homo sapiens, monkeys and other animals, including crows. My bête-noir. They have a habit of coming to the water dish and dunking offensive looking treasures, using the stones (one of which had clearly escaped) as some sort of utensil, before flying off leaving polluted watery remains behind them. It has to be owned that although one overarching thought when I’m trying to plan for next season’s plants, is what is wild life friendly and how to encourage more, in reality I could do without the crows.

Plenty of untidy corners co-habit with plenty of carefully bred flowers that attract the bees, have long flowering seasons and need very little attention. It’s not exactly wilding which I am in favour of, but have to watch up here, since self-seeding opportunities include cracks and crevices which opportinists might enjoy at the expense of water pentration into the flat below. For ‘WILDING, the return of nature to a British farm’, click here for the youtube clip to learn more https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FMfUrSzAjg.

Hardy geraniums bridge the gap between the the bright and beautiful and serendipitous arrivals like the clover. They are generally disease free, wildlife friendly, happy to be chopped radically before coming back again, and seem to enjoy pot life where those that want it can get enough shade and water. Geranium Pratense is a favourite. Last year it capitulated to the heat, this year it arrived early and stayed late and has managed to avoid getting powdery mildew until very recently, which was a reminder to begin the cut back.

Top Tips

  • Think of thrift and you think of the shoreline, but gritty compost in a south facing spot will do as well.
  • Don’t grow chillies unless you have a green-house.
  • If you opt for selected birdfood (mealworms and peanuts would be my recommendation) you will have plenty of visiting tits, including families of longtails, as well as other garden birds, and will also mostly avoid the seed prefering, marauding feral pigeons.
    I’m also delighted that the pair of wood pigeons continue to find enough to be rewarded and the thrushes and blackbirds keep the slugs and snails under control.

And finally : I have found that writing each post for the blog is a good way of paying attention to this evolving high rise garden, and I’ve learnt a few plant names along the way too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unintended Consequences

 

Travel Broadens the Mind

Pisa, I recently discovered, is a city not only of historic monuments but contemporary dilemmas too. Having retreated to the hotel after a trip spent largely avoiding a chill wind and heavy showers, and somewhat suprised by a particularly heavy police presence, the small square opposite the hotel, well away from the historic centre, gradually filled up with people of all ages mingling amidst Che Guevara banners,  efficient rubbish collectors and trinket sellers likely to have negotiated apalling crossings from North Africa, their probable point of departure. They were treated kindly by the crowd and sold some beads, against a background of Carribean music, occasional speeches and a haze of smoke.

Some of the crowd, middle aged, middle class and articulate, could be imagined from my viewing point above as lawyers or doctors joining the cause, this being a plea to legalise the cultivation of cannabis to ensure its availability on therapeutic grounds. I got a bit lost at some point, as although English was the language of much of the music and some of the banners, following the speeches would have been difficult even for a fluent Italian speaker as passion and an inadequate PA system, as well as the substance in question, reduced potentially articulate arguments to a rather less fluent verbal stream.

Unable to follow the action in front of me I turned to the Internet and discovered that this particular demonstration was one of a number across Italy, and that the introduction of some fine detailed legislation in 2016 to control the expanding Italian hemp industry had in ways I couldn’t follow affected the availability of cannabis so that there is only one legal cannabis farm in Italy, guarded by the army. I also discovered, but will soon forget, that the ratio of CBD-to-THC in botanical and pharmceutical preparations is what determines the therapeutic versus psychoactive effects of cannabis.

At 9.0pm the music stopped, the remaining litter was picked up, and everyone walked quietly away.

On medical and social grounds I’m on the liberal side of the argument while falling short of planning to grow any plants myself. Attractive as they may be as plants, I’m not keen on the clandestine aspect and am reminded of the problems that beset a local church when the crypt inadvertently hosted a temporary cannabis farm which only came to light after the electricity bill soared unexpectedly.

Transport of Delights

Meanwhile, England was basking in the sun with the Chelsea Flower Show in full swing, demonstrating the extent of the possible, horticulturally and imaginatively. I was pleased to discover that this year naturalistic planting, embracing weeds (not so easy with the oxalis which has taken up residence in several of my favourite pots) and planting trees are all to the fore. I can always manage the first two as buttercups and other serendipitous arrivals can ensure the unexpected but my record to date with trees is very mixed. The three olive trees (two brought from the West Country and one more recent arrival) presumably experience an exposed, elevated south facing balcony as a reasonable substitute for a Greek hillside, and thrive, one Eucalyptus ‘Nicholii’ is flourishing, the other struggling, and whilst the fruit bearing cherry is clearly enjoying its turn in the sun the Japenese ‘Kojo-no-mai‘ is not.

I have previously admitted to enjoying the set design aspect of gardening, creating an overall effect which doesn’t always bear close scrutiny, which perhaps explains the absence of horticultural detail as I write. However, I hope I’ve now developed the capacity to go a little beyond the studied placement of a few seasonal plants, replaced at will, and I have been wondering what to do with my not so flowering flowering cherry.

This was coming into bloom before being hit by more rain earlier in the year, when the container was already sodden from winter downpours. Briefly, in the warmth of February some blossum appeared.

It was an expensive plant that has developed an attractive shape, but it is now dying, or more likely dead. One option would be to admit defeat and replace it, mourning both the plant and the cost involved. On the other hand I’ve tried my hand at growing seedlings this year, including some annual climbers – namely pink Thunbergia – in keeping with the overall colour scheme, that were doing rather well at an early stage while hopefully avoiding a ‘Barbara Cartland’ effect. The cherry tree presented itself as an attractive, available alternative to my tasteful and contemporary rusted obelisks (I have three already) which could support the climbers in their search for the sun, planted together with some trailing ivies heading in the opposite direction. My hope being that the combined vigorous growth could make good use of the wet conditions and help the pot dry out thereby allowing the cherry to recover. This is of course only a case study of one but there’s no evidence so far that this is a remedy destined to succeed.

It might have been wiser to relinquish any hope of the cherry’s revival and gone for another small tree which could have begun to establish itself in the anticipated warmer months, joining in my hoped for harmonious horticultural jumble in high season while narrowly avoiding chaos the rest of the year.

Transience and Transitions

Thalictrum (plural thalictra) are a group of plants I have only recently discovered. Having made the dicovery I then acquired a few thalictra(ums) delavayi without grasping that they are tall plants (growing to over a metre), shade preferring, late summer flowering, and probably much better suited to expansive planting, but having silvery green leaves and purple lace flowers, undeniably tempting. So a year or so ago I bought three or four, planted them inappropriately, enjoyed them, and having discovered my mistake then expected them to fade away. But in their meagre pots and containers, both in the sun and the shade they determidly come back.  I am delighted and rather surprised and will now leave them alone as they seem to be doing rather well.

The overall effect at the moment is joyous as flowers are emerging every day, the greenery is abundant and it does feel as though the planting in some way combines to form a whole, although I’d be hard put to say why or explain how. Even through the windows and doors (sadly nothing as sophisticated as bifolds or tri-folds but rather paned glass) there are, mostly, glimpses of interesting plants, including strawberries with promise, and greenery of all sorts. But that is not the whole picture and as ever there are some plants, as well as one area, evidently in transition, which at the moment seem rather incoherent and charmless.

The outlook from the sitting room has been charming, giving months of pleasure while the helebores tumbled around amidst the shorter lived tulips, and it will be again when the salvias really get going. But regrettably, although the outlook is dominated by a vigorous elderly clematis, with splendid flowers and a determination to provide wonderful colour and interest, the supporting act is letting the side down.

I am waiting expectantly for the next phase to begin, when the white flowers and powerful scent of the city favourite Trachelospermum jasminoides gradually overtake the fading clematis, and for a brief period the two climbers co-habit and compliment each other.

All very different from a Chelsea show garden, which in addition to the artistry of the designer and the experience of the constructors, benefits from the knowledge and knowhow of the plant nurseries detailed understanding of different designers’ requirements and the neccessity to hold back or advance the emergence of particular flowers. Growing conditions, including soil type, humidity, light conditions and temperature are all skillfully managed, or manipulated, to suit the final display. The significance of the gaze from above or within is not a new concept and of course varies in scale from Le Nôtre’s ambitions for Versailles, to re-arranging a terracotta pot outside the bedroom door. However, I still find myself oscillating between the sure and certain knowledge that in any one year there are always some plants that are an unexpected success and others that have a disappointing season, while still occasionally hankering after and wishing that, for once, it could all look at its best for one glorious moment.

Gardening notes

Planting a ‘china’ rose in an oversized container, in an Easterly aspect, trapped below the surrounding parapet wall was a mistake.

Clematii on the other hand love the sunny, windy aspect with their roots below the same surrounding wall, so perhaps another clematis and a new obelisk, purchased this time as I don’t have any spare trees looking for companions, is the answer.

And I will expand my collection of  Tulbaghia  whenever possible – unfussy and well adapted to my high rise roof garden, and with an exceptionally long flowering season and delicate flower heads which weave in amongst other plants, they are reliably happy hereabouts.

Knowing the while that a container garden is temporary, and like a show garden will one day be dismantled and packed up, but for the moment rewards all the effort.

 

 

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  1. It is lovely to catch up with what sounds like a very full and varied container garden, which we haven’t seen for a long time, too long, life being as busy as it is. The photos are beautiful. Could the names of the plants be written underneath the pics?
    Meanwhile our town garden becomes a floral jungle and the challenge is keeping enough blooms going between tulip-time and the roses.

    • Thank you for your comment – lovely to hear from you and of course the balcony is always open to visitors. Meanwhile I wonder why I haven’t thought of putting the plant names under the pics – it seems so obvious! I always hope that aquilegia will help fill the gap but they failed this year whereas the clematis have been quite spectacular. Summer comes early here too and last year lingered on while the days shortened.

Spring Fever

Not Quite a Potager, more a Collection of Pots.

The elements are here on the balcony – fruits of different sorts (a fruiting cherry looking happy and healthy having come through it’s first Winter), strawberries looking incredibly eager to go forth and multiply and the olive trees promising another year of fruit, which although too few to put through the complex process of curing and frementing on their own in order to become edible, could be taken to a co-operative if I find one ready to receive offerings later in the year.

With global warming, or perhaps changes in cyclical weather patterns, the olive line now stretches northwards across from Oxford and beyond, although in truth not necessarily  producing fruit. However, I once heard tell of an exterprising horticulturist who applied to the EU for an olive subsidy, the details of which now escape me. Being essentally honest, and living (from memory) perhaps in Doncaster, he applied on behalf of something in the order of a dozen or so trees, but the incredulous administrator, with limited knowledge of the weather patterns in the north of England, converted the units to thousands, and so a fortune was apparently made, or at least the possibility was created.

Meanwhile I am managing to grow plenty of herbs, including bay, but as this is the only plant I’m trying to train into a formal shape (also a characteristic of French potagers) I am ambivalent about random culinary pickings, so my prunings will have to be kept for later use. Otherwise chives, sage, parsley, rosemary in abundance, thyme, lavender and oregano. Oddly no mint, so something to add to the shopping list.

As I have previously explained, amongst my favourites is wild marjoram (oregano)  which isn’t always easy to come by in city plant centres. Having found some on-line late last summer I was pleased to fill that particular gap in my plant list and was careful to find a sheltered spot to help the juvenile plants overwinter. So I was disappointed and annoyed with myself when I realised that none had survived due to my carelessness. I had forgotten that the downpipes from the extensive roof above are bizarrely designed, since having done their bit to take the water off the roof, the system relies on the gradient of the terraced area before rainwater is channelled on further down. This means that cold winter water lingers around for a while in some sections of the balcony after heavy downpours, and placing pots of marjoram in the flood-plain was evidently a mistake, now remedied with more plants from the same supplier.  I’ve learnt my lesson and have put the new arrivals in elevated positions, at least for the moment.

I can’t claim to having any vegetables, and the plant collection is a combination of plants familar in southern England and southern France, or both. Clematis do well, roses for a while, so too the expanding collection of tulbaghias which look rather Mediterranean but come from South Africa and like the extremes of temperature, with high winds and good light levels that the balcony offers. I just need to keep watering them.

Casualties of the Storm

I have begun the growing season well with plenty of cutting back, feeding, watering and planning all going ahead. The intention being to reduce the number of trip hazards, have fewer containers with more impressive and better nurtured contents (all of which involves doing my homework which has never been my strong point) and keeping to the overall plan for the year ahead. Plants that are obviously dying have sometimes reluctantly gone (the reluctance of course being mine not the plants), some containers have also gone or been re-cycled as crocks and as ever I have had to relinguish some hoped for additions to the planting as the wind and weather have taken their toll. Rather satisfactorily, however, a small bush honeysuckle, which has never enjoyed its restricted existence in spite of being ‘suitable for container growing‘, is now happliy re-cycled to the allotment ready to do its bit to attract the local pollinators.

I’m intending too, to limit the amount I spend on the balcony as the cost per picking of thyme or parsley far exceeds the price of a supermarket packet – but on the other hand unlike ‘our friend in the North’ I never intended this to be a profitable enterprise although learning from my mistakes sometimes proves rather expensive.

‘Faux’ shabby can be rather expensive too and without the charm and history of ‘real’ shabby, neither of which can be found in great abundance amongst my semi-industrial pots and spaces up on high, sheltered from the weather by the creaky factory style roof above. Actually I’m rather tempted by both faux and real shabby from time to time and always hankered after the careworn wooden table that had once been part of the outdoor furniture of my childhood. Many moves later, and with much of the other furniture finding new habitats over the years, the old table, layered with paint, and with geraniums atop, found its final resting place nestled into my father’s last garden.

Garden sheds still evoke Proustian memories of a particular musty smell, conjuring up summer warmth and horticutural debris. The allotment shed is rather small, so difficult to actually get inside, and the door stays open to the elements while work is going, on so no accumulated sensory legacy. However, at home the whole operation has moved indoors. Lacking a shed, still less a greenhouse, the kichen draining board has to do and as there is a certain amount of space on top of the kitchen cupboards for seedlings amongst chitting potatoes, house plants and various objets d’art, with a large skylight giving ample light, it doubles up quite successfully as a work station.

Ma or the Space Between

Willing as ever to be educated by Monty Don I have learnt a bit about the importance of the space between things, Ma, as in late Winter he tried to explain the mysteries of Japanese gardens and the governing philosophy. However, I’m struggling.

Ma is a Japanese word which can be roughly translated as gap, space, pause, or the space between two structural parts with the word ‘space’ suggesting or conveying ‘interval’.

I’ve always been unsuccessful with maples, in or out of pots, and am now rather troubled by recollections of the time a Japanese student spent a year learning English while living at the top of the Victorian terraced house, with long thin garden, that was home at the time. It was a bit of cultural shock on all sides, as the emphasis on neatness and formality even extended to plates of beans on toast, with the beans arranged in neat order one side of the plate and triangles of toast on the other. So the principle of Ma was evident there too and I have never forgotten my shame as any meal I prepared lacked the elegance and restraint she modelled but I still find so difficult to emulate.

The garden she looked out on, while helping with the washing up in those pre-dishwasher days, was a typical mixture of straggly shrubs, patchy lawn, wobbly fence and an assortment of pots outside the back door. All very different from the gardens she would have heard of, and perhaps visited, while growing up in a high-rise flat in Sapporo, a city in Hokkaido the nothernmost of Japan’s main islands, known for it’s volcanoes and hot springs. On her part she was full of wonder at the summer day length, which was to her as unexpected as the domestic informality she encountered, since at 43 degrees N Sapporo has much less seasonal variation in day length than London at 51.

The bamboo parasol, a lasting legacy of her stay, still lingers near the front door, and is an endless source of fascination for the visiting rising nine year old who will soon have arms long enough to open it out on his own. I’m also rather pleased that at this late stage I’m surprisingly allowing something of her cultural heritage to permeate my thinking. Last night I threw away a superfluous bird feeder in yellow plastic that has never attracted any birds, and so was a phoney boost to my commitment to bird feeding. Surprisingly, there was immediately a greater sense of space, as for the moment at least, there was a bigger gap between the honeysuckle branches so revealing the Surrey hills, remarkably different from the dramatic snow capped mountains of northern Japan.

As I’ve tried to explain previously, this really is a scaled down enterprise with gardening at the level of the individual plant, and yes, removing one single eye-catching object has curiously made a difference. The options are to take one or two strides to the right or to the left after stepping out onto the terrace, and even these have to be shortened in high summer when the containers are overflowing. Then you are up against an array of pots carefully staggered in various ways, both into the space and vertically wherever possible. But for the next few weeks, before the surrounding trees knit together in a dense summer canopy, the view through the emerging shimmering early leaves to the edge of the hills beyond, is really rather magical.

Meanwhile although I’m not up for the dedicated and aggressive pruning that Japanese gardening requires I am hopeful that as the bay tree grows up, together with the sweet box now smelling spectacularly, there will be a greater sense of space at ground level. No raked gravel underfoot but seeing more of my carefully sourced beaten-earth toned tiles would be a bonus.

Notes from a particularly small garden

Anyone travelling into west Wales, and stopping for coffee at one of the familiar multiple coffee shops along the motorway near Bridgend, should look out for the free bags of used coffee grounds ready to be picked up, recycled and added to the compost bin. 

Sadly lacking a Spring green canopy of trees of my own I’ve finally admitted the obvious, that my growing conditions are more Mediterranean than middle England and so unsurpringly it is the olives, rosemary and eucalyptus than can keep going through the Winter ready to profit from the exposed, sunny conditions the rest of the year.

And as we all know there is no such thing as a free lunch – or maybe even reliably hot free Serrano chilli plants.  A cousin who last year planted the free chilli seeds she acquired with the bill after a Mexican meal, has been disappointed to be producing bland chillis, rather than the fiery hot variety that was promised. All chillis need heat (in the sense of high ambient temperatures) to reach their maximum culinary potential but this should be feasible when grown behind glass or in a poly-tunnel in sunny southern counties. It’s been done to spectacular effect by a Bangladeshi restaurant owner in Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, I seem to remember from an earlier episode of Gardeners World.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

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  1. I had fondly hoped that the heat of last year’s summer would have been enough to warm up the chilli flavour. I think that on the evidence seen, I can say confidently that you cannot grow decent chillies in the UK in the open (in a Wiltshire, ground-level garden)!

    • I now realise I’m rather ambivalent on the chilli front – I think I like the idea of confounding expectations, and producing intense culinary heat against the odds, rather more than I want to eat too much intensely hot food, but on the otherhand the opportunity might spur me on to new endeavours.

      Either way I would enjoy another hot Summer, particularly as the heat seaking veggies did rather well on the allotment and helpfully provided some protection for the carrots and other shade loving plants………

  2. It’s not just Wales. We were in Gatehouse of Fleet last week for a couple of days and the local independent coffee shop had a container by the door with bags of used coffee grounds for the taking.

    • I’m glad the word is spreading and compost bins are getting an influx of used coffee grounds, but it took me a while to discover Gatehouse of Fleet was a town in Scotland. I should travel North more often. Holme on Spalding Moor gets the record as far as I know as the UK place name with the most words, but I expect that can be capped.

A Seasonal Postscript

 

24th December 2019

 No Christmassy scenes at this city edge – wintry in the sense of wet and windy but nowhere locally is very deep and crisp at the moment. It may yet happen but for now the problem for travellers and wild life is largely the excess of grey, misty weather and bouts of rather miserable rain.

Bizarrely, an unexpected noise from above earlier today turned out to be a sea-gull, apparently licking (if birds can lick) something off first one, and then the other skylight, which offer very welcome additional light at this time of year. Nothing obvious, certainly no remnants of pasties, the favoured food of the West Country sea birds that thread through my life at different moments. Although thinking now, perhaps the glass skylights were serving as a make-shift dining table for food remnants snatched from the dustbins below.

More conventional feeding stations have been much on my mind alongside conventional seasonal offerings, including mince pies (fine in small quantities), smoked salmon (delicious) and sprouts (to be avoided). But the feeding stations that are uppermost are the bird feeders that if not cleaned regularly, may be a source of avian infection. I am now armed with an appropriate spray and a determined attitude to improve food hygiene on the balcony, but an accompanying concern about yet another plastic container arriving chez nous.

All this in the same week that I had lunch in an elegant restaurant with an old friend. Since enquiries about allergies have become de riguer when food orders are taken, in this case by a somewhat over solicitous waiter, we subsequently began to wonder about the cause of the up-rise in hazardous peanut allergies and the association, or perhaps blame, laid at the door of contemporary life and its excessive attention to cleanliness.

Hard to get the level of hygiene right.

4th January 2019

The year has turned, the days are getting longer again and last year’s flowers are continuing to offer up a display. And what do I feel, or even think about pelargoniums and hardy geraniums still displaying their colourful wares in this small, informal, fragmented and sometimes experimental roof top space, somewhere between an overgrown window-box and an opportunistic terrace?

Since a roof garden doesn’t offer even an illusion of permanence and history, unless a plant is passed on and subsequently planted elsewhere with a chance to settle (and I am discounting elegant roof terraces with neatly clipped, well behaved evergreens) transience and change have the upper hand. Pots are readily moved and failures can easily be learned from, or not. Everything is more or less in reach so restraining or encouraging, clipping and cutting back, watering and feeding are all on the whole very doable, while the seasons, too, can be masked as sheltered micro-climates continue to support late flowering roses and all year round growth. Even occasional flurries of snow are given minimal opportunity to settle. On the other hand, the opportunities to return to the wild, although tempting and plentiful, may also need restraining as roof liners can all too easily give way. Although I suspect an over enthusiastic self-seeded buddleia may be much happier than one of the species specifically adapted for containers, all too soon water penetration below may be its downfall in every way. From memory, and perhaps from the BBC series ‘The Forgotten Planet’ London would return to forest within 50 years if no repairs were ever done.

However, there is no lasting legacy so these temporary spaces with their portable histories and unpredictable futures need to make the most of the possibilities while they can. And they are. Hereabouts the balconies and roof gardens which have sprung into being in recent years have also more recently sprung into life – plants, containers, bird feeders and occasional bikes are to be seen as spaces of all sorts are greening up. Expensive specimen plants, colourful plastic window boxes and associated impedimenta are now to be found along the southern reaches of the District Line. I rather welcome the absence of bare twigs (which most gardeners will recognise as a sure sign of winter) in the built environment as I gaze out in dwindling light from a passing train; the full force of the season being temporarily modified and moderated as I pass by.

Meanwhile tits of all sorts have taken over the feeding stations on the balcony and long before I could change my phone to camera mode I briefly spied a great spotted woodpecker snatching a meal from the peanut feeder. Redwings also spent a few days nearby as they passed through on their way from Scandinavia, but sadly ignored the apples I was encouraged to leave out for them.

9th January 2019

Pelargonium leaves still weigh down the mother plants, and their flowers continue to struggle on, but in truth it’s time for last year’s efforts to be put to bed and space given to Spring and the year ahead, however remarkable their efforts are, even in this relatively sheltered spot.

Photos capture all sorts of moments including the changes in the weather, but the biting winds at this time of year often go straight through the branches of the horse chestnut trees opposite, leaving them undisturbed like a ghost in the night.

17th January 2019

The day began well with an unexpected donation and surprising momento of lunch with a friend. My freebie had the initial appearance of a packet of matches, so predictably aroused my ire. So much for my mistrustful assumptions – appearances can be deceiving. The ‘sticks’ are an enterprising way of distributing chilli seeds which can be easily inserted into a pot of compost, watered regularly, kept warm and passed on in time, since chilli plants are very obliging. The Wahaca restaurant encourages photos of chilli plants to be shared on #WahacaChilliGrower so setting up a virtuous circle with advertising, chilli growing and good eating all benefiting thereby ‘reclaiming the city one chilli plant at a time’. One omission might be the absence of any mention of the Scoville heat scale. Since I don’t know how hot these particular chillis are likely to be I will proceed with extreme caution, while enjoying their decorative potential. A high kitchen shelf, well lit through the larger sky-light, and currently occupied by a number of house-plants, could soon be home to a few more.

Having looked more carefully I have discovered (in very small print) that these are the seeds of Serrano chillis with a score of 10,000-23,000 Scoville heat units, so possibly best kept for their ornamental rather than culinary qualities – but I hope in time to be able to offer the seeds to anyone with a greater appetite for chilli heat than me.

In contrast a brief mid-January visit to the allotment was a reminder that a solitary echium in a flower strip, away from the warmer climes it prefers, is rather a dismal sight. In Cornwall where they flourish and propagation is a question of capturing the many-fold seedlings to put in pots (which can’t always be given away) I am told they can also sell for £20 each, rather bucking the usual economic mantra of supply and demand. I’m not sure I have any prospect of any seedlings to sell later in the year, but if I do I’m also uncertain of their market value in Southwest London where gardens are small and order generally preferred.

In the meantime the green shoots that I am noticing in various planters among the less easily identifiable horticultural life, are beginning to expand into juvenile Spring bulbs. They have, at least in theory, been strategically placed to have maximum impact when viewed through the south facing windows while safely in the warmth of the central heated world indoors. Mostly tulips and a few narcissi, but on the whole the tulips win hands down. In small numbers the variations of pink flowers, from the palest to the most vibrant, can make an impact in much smaller numbers than bulbs that are closer to their native ancestors and often at their best in woodland settings.

Fritillaria meleagris, Snake’s head fritillary, which I grew successfully for a couple of years (a fluke maybe) failed last year so for now I will leave them to the Oxford meadows which I can’t really compete with.

5th February 2019

Winter has now been and gone. A few days of sleet, some snow underfoot and an absurd moment when vanity triumphed, albeit briefly. Fed up with boots and an evening meeting to attend I wore some new(ish) leather soled shoes which had no resistance against the icy conditions that the Met office had accurately forecast. Humbled, I was rescued by a friend.

The long awaited sweet box, Sarcococca, is coming out into flower and when the sun is up I hope the scent will be too, although the wind may claim it first. The hellebores have also come out in season this year and will hopefully linger awhile and an unnamed succulent seems quite happy in spite of the oscillating conditions. More anxiously I am wondering about the witch-hazel which may prefer more shelter and the cherries, which have yet to reassure me that I know how to look after them.

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Herbs of all sorts, on the other hand, do very well but like the astonishing, elegant and delicious birthday cake that looked much too wonderful and good to be eaten (but was), selecting herbs to pick can involve negotiating the fine line between losing their beautiful form and gaining a culinary contribution; I tend to go for form as exemplified above by my ridiculous choice of shoes. Some readers may remember I have history when it comes to wearing expensive, inappropriate shoes when gardening or venturing outdoors.

 

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  1. Your prediction that “winter has come and gone” is bold. I wondered if your favourite Oracle is as good as those referred to by Herodotus which I am reading in a U3A reading group.
    Love,
    Peter

    • My reputation for systematic investigation has never been very strong – I’m more inclined to intuitive suppositions which I can see may not be entirely appropriate when predicting the weather or changes in the seasons! And perhaps I am really expressing a hope that winter has been and gone, particularly after last year’s long, cold, bleak start to the year and the very late arrival of Spring and early Summer.
      Having said that I have just popped out onto the balcony where to my surprise I found a scabious in flower…………

Winter Wonderland

Cold Comforts

Is it a forlorn hope that no further city edge developments will swallow up the few remaining, marginally viable, garden centres with a long history of horticultural wisdom and week-end pleasure? Christmas generally arives early for frequenters of these particular emporia as the October half term anticipates the arrival of tinselled and present-worthy offerings, often to the premature accompaniment of festive carols, while anything with horticultural pretensions is marginalised to make space. So I am very appreciative of the restraint shown by Sheen Garden Centre,which more or less confines its tinsel to one small room and gives colourful seasonal plants pride of place – cyclamen, ericas, hellebores, cotoneaster, hamamelis (always witch hazel to me) and much more.

Often bigger than you think, these largely outdoor suppliers take advantage of narrow gaps between buildings to store taller plants, and with ingenious use of levels make the most of every opportunity to invite interest in a wide range of more or less cultivated plants. It pays to search and rummage carefully.

Meanwhile, on the balcony the tulips and other bulbs have been planted, late, and crammed in where there is space. The result, I might fancifully anticipate, being not unlike the random, naturalistic planting favoured by the gardeners I admire, but adapted to this limited space, with bulbs scattered across various containers rather than through borders. Tulips, that most cultivated of bulbs, perhaps lend themselves least to notions of naturalisation but surprisingly benefit from this haphazard and casual approach in this particular high level planting area. Immaculate conceptions in regimented rows or groups, and sophisticated colour concepts, are an alternative but unrealistic prospect up aloft since I lack the necessary accompanying systematic mind or the will to vacate the appropriate pots.

The roof garden, balcony, terrace, name as you will, is remarkably small – not much more than 2m x 4m at its broadest point and host at any one time to upwards of an assorted seventy-two containers. I checked recently after a bit of a clearout. The planters and containers range from long established partnerships with olives or roses, to seasonal associations with bulbs or plants. As always there are surprises, with some carefully chosen and possibly over nurtured plants promising to adapt to contained conditions being a conspicuous failure – mine or the plant’s I’m never sure. Various buddleias have been pre-eminently disappointing and possibly too dry, whereas the clematii of various sorts are often too vigorous in spite of their cramped and limited conditions.

The tiled terrace is largely exposed to westerly winds and rain, alternating with southerly sun, as well as some protection from the neighbouring horse chestnuts, together with the olives, rosemary, and other robust boundary plants all around the balcony edge. The two Eucalyptus nichollii, are now both doing well and are particularly decorative, although too fragile and susceptible to wind to offer much shelter beyond a bit of shadow in the sultry, still weather of last summer. There is also shelter from the main building’s factory style roof which overhangs by a margin of two or three feet or the metric equivalent.

Lessons by Design

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned the roof very often as I tend to by-pass it’s industrial heritage, sitting functionally, atop the substantial red-brick building below. In addition to providing equally welcome or unwelcome rain protection, depending on the prevailing weather, it frequently creaks, disconcerting in high winds. In photos the roof is best avoided if at all possible as its apparently dense, solid structure is distracting, although appearances are deceptive and it is actually made of carefully constructed but ‘paper-thin’ steel and in close-up, in small quantities it has aged with a certain rustic charm. Hopefully not too weathered as replacing it is unimaginable since it comes in substantial sections without the portability of tiles and slates – so charm is welcome only in so far as it remains rain-proof.

On a late summer writing course many moons ago, I learnt two invaluable tips from a pre-eminent wordsmith – to always keep a note-book handy and to keep a ‘good line’ even when it was currently residing in a ‘bad verse’, as it might find its place another time. So too with planting schemes. And if you are lucky, even in my minimalistic space, for a moment the lines will work together and create something which can, in small measure, be more that its component parts before age, neglect, drought or unruly growth take over, but you have to be quick to notice.

Not forgetting that it is a truth universally acknowledged, that unexpected visitors never see your garden at its best.

I have also noticed how attuned we all are, unsurprisingly, to horticultural spaces that have some parallels with our own. I am particularly alert to ideas at the level of the single plant, and recently found it difficult to convince a visiting friend that the high rise eucalypti were happily adapted to life as ornamental species, and being confined to an air pot, were not going to grow much taller. His eye being better adapted to majestic tall trees in wide or wild spaces.

Last Lingerings

Remnants of Autumn remain down below and round about as a few tenacious last leaves cling on, but the relief from the incescent noise of leaf blowers is palpable now that they have largely done their job. Next year we are promised compost bins so hopefully the effort required to transport and recycle the leaves off site will be scaled down, as they are added to the bins or even sacks for leafmold. I’m up for all of this but still worry about the energy required to power the leaf blowers.

Metropolitan gardens are lucky if they can confer the serenity of country spaces and the traffic noise is more audible without the leaves, but there is nevertheless some compensation as the buildings and gardens around come into view, including the aforementioned church and majestic pines. Surprisingly, from this vantage point, as the days shorten and time spent lingering is rationed, paradoxically the sense of connection with the wider world expands, together with increased opportunities to gaze on the scene below.

A generally benign process.

From above it is easier to spot, and then rescue, footballs from next door lodged in out of reach bushes or drought affected trees unlikely to recover, miscreants dropping litter or new planting schemes coming into being. Pre-eminently a chance to be curious.

On the terrace, as Winter approaches salvias and roses flower on, pelargoniums enjoy the combination of wintry sun and background warmth and the hellebores and witch hazel are readying for their key-note display. The recently acquired dwarf wisteria looks settled and I am hopeful, too, that the replacement cherry will come through and thrive. With some trepidation I have followed instructions and cut the ever loyal lemon verbena down to size while waiting to be recompensed for care given, by the perfumed sweet smelling box – things look promising on that front but whether the scent will linger or be blown away I have yet to find out.

The anticipation alone has had its rewards so well worth being hopeful. Fortunate too for me that the increase in housing provision, with ever smaller gardens, has meant the arrival of more ‘dwarf varieties’ suitable for containers. Some flourish, others don’t and the wider implications of the building policies and horticultural developments are equally uncertain in the long run I might argue. But for the moment the pleasures are to be had and the insects and bird life can share in next year’s enjoyment.

Meanwhile I must resist the temptation to intervene. The combination of summer heat and my efforts at watering, together with periodic additions of seaweed extract (an odd choice perhaps for this native of southerly rather than maritime climes) has resulted in an abundance of olives, and healthy growth from all three trees. But down below, although over the garden fence, are two neat rows of struggling olive trees, set at right angles. Planted in narrow necked planters and kept perpetually in the rain shadow conferred both by the nearby building and their own canopies, the notion that Mediterranean plants tolerate dry conditions has taken hold, and they are suffering, which is a particular pity as the rest of the garden grows well.

I am feeling smug and also remembering the apt re-naming close family members were once encouraging, when it was agreed I might be better suited to being called Flora (Poste), the eponymous heroine of Cold Comfort Farm. Famed for taking Metropolitan ideas to the country, full of schemes to improve the lives of her relations, and always tempted to interfere in the affairs of others for sensible reasons, she is indeed an appealing role model for someone with my inclinations. Some forthcoming tree-work that necessitates cross border collaboration, might be an opportunity to offer advice supported by the photos on my ever-present phone, or even better to suggest that the advice to make use of a hosepipe and feed from time to time is passed on.

It is sometimes easier to pass on advice than to act on it, but I am really grateful for the plant suggestions and horticultural advice I’ve received though the comments and other messages over the last few months which are unexpected, helpful and informative and have mostly been put into practice. More would be welcome, particularly any experience of growing dwarf cherry trees in pots. I would offer guided tours in return but will have to settle for a wander through the photographic record instead.

And at 8.14 today, Tuesday 4th December, with the wintry sun shining brightly, a queen bumble bee was milling around the rosemary which had caught my eye, proudly displaying its flowers and buds, presumably ready for next year’s early pollinators rather than this unexpected reluctant hibernator.

In no particular order :
My tulbaghia collection is thriving and hopefully will again survive the winter
The echium on the allotment never reached it’s full height which may be a relief to neighbouring veg growers
After last year’s disappointment I lost confidence and didn’t plant any fritillaries this Autumn
But happily I do now have some wild marjoram
I need to choose taller dahlias for the allotment
I am hoping the willow herb will return
The permanent plants have grown up so the railings are now largely obscured
and the oak seedling may be happier in a hedgerow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. I have a small leaved evergreen clematis which took a while to get going, but flowers beautifully now, and isn’t at all rampant. It’s called Oberon I think.
    Do you make tea with the lemon verbena? I read somewhere that Mary Berry puts lemon verbena in her lemon drizzle cake.

    • It is lovely to be reminded of real gardening, rather than rambling and musing in an unnecessarily over-blown way (I now think having re-read my latest post) on gardening related themes increasingly distant from gardening itself.
      I have checked – and as Clematis Oberon is highly perfumed, doesn’t require pruning and I have a vacant container I am planning to track one down – or at least I will once the tinsel has all been put away.
      Hopefully it will soon be joining your other suggestions, including the sweetly scented box just outside the doors to the terrace, now well adapted to this warm and windy spot.
      So thank you for another recommendation. I am also truly envious of the depth of your horticultural knowledge.

Scents and Sensibilities

The Art of Compromise

A lingering late summer lunch, in an enviably lawned London garden teeming with bees and butterflies, not least because the plants were chosen with casual beauty, abundance and wild life in mind, was in sharp contrast to the increasingly cramped quarters aloft on the roof terrace as the days shortened. As an afterthought, many of the small and medium sized plants in the larger planters had a growth spurt after their summer dormancy in response to the drought, and the Liliputian Verbena Bonariensis, whilst no match for the full height variety, seized its moment, bushing out and subsequently flowering for weeks on end.

Now, by agreement, the Autumn tidy-up involves keeping the possibilty of reaching the seating area in mind to enjoy the emerging views. The church spire on the brow of the hill opposite is still partially obscured but will soon be fully exposed, and the 270 degree vistas from the Chilterns round to Canary Wharf will open up as the surrounding trees drop their leaves, although to see the extreme margins a certain amount of neck-craning and clambering over pots is required. No matter. It is Autumn, the leaves are thinning and tumbling down as light streams onto the balcony and beyond, and the re-connection with the wider world and the seasonal colours is in itself particular and a joy.

In truth the olive trees, bay and roses have flourished this year, and anything upwards of waist height, and growing in a large container, has unsurprisingly more or less enjoyed the sun-drenched summer, admittedly with my watering, whereas the occupants of the smallest pots and containers have withered in the face of the difficulty of contending with prolonged dry spells. My more experimental planting has also been a very limited success and I have finally accepted that trying to grow Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘red fox’ in exposed drying conditions, in a cramped pot, has been a rather expensive failure. I’m not sure that they were planted with the addition of mycorrhizal fungi powder either. I was initially sceptical of the life-giving powers of this wonder drug but it works, is not unduely expensive when compared with the risk of losing a beautiful plant, and as long as you remember at the key moment to apply it, that is when it can be added to compost and  container as they are ready to receive the plant, and the roots are primed and ready too, I commend it. Learning to to spell mycorrhizal is more challenging.

So Mediterranean plants it is, together with the unexpected delights of strawberries growing happily close to the building under the shade of neighbouring plants. With mixed feelings I am now giving the larger plants, including a well behaved cistus and multiple wild and untamed lemon verbena, a particular favourite with me and the bumble bees, their head and stacking up the smaller trip hazards with their shrivelled contents.

I will miss them and it is all beginning to look rather neat, although behind the scenes the plant debris is undisturbed and the long lost plastic bottle insect home (made Blue Peter style with the visiting then seven year old) has been spotted embedded in a corner behind an olive tree where it is to remain as permanent housing for the plentiful local insects. The late-summer salvia-filled planters are now wonderfully scent filled too and rather unexpectedly the seating area finds itself surrounded by roses, lavender, the sweet smelling box Sarcococca confusa, sage and rosemary. It could have been a carefully considered pot-pourri but I was looking for shape and texture as I moved things around and then discovered scent.

Green is the Colour

Since leaving the West Country and moving to the South West margin of London my olive trees have thrived on the southerly terrace, producing fruit which I expected the tits would eat.

Transported from a large exposed balcony, with no surrounding tree tops, this sunnier site had been a popular feeding station for numerous tits flocking to the infant fruits which they feasted on with delight. But not so now, which had puzzled me and led me to think that my regularly topped up peanut feeder was more tempting than the olives. But maybe not. I now learn that feeding birds head first for the most easily spotted fruit such as the brightest red rowan berries, and less distinct, softer coloured, yellow or white fruits are not so popular, with green fruit even further down the pecking order. Presumably this is to save energy searching, rather than a taste preference, but I have no claims myself to be an ornithologist although I know a man who does and will ask. It may have been that the green olives had actually been more visible against the silvery olive leaves in the very different light left behind. Whereas now it is green on green although I am interested to see what happens next as this summer’s heat has allowed the olive fruit to begin to ripen, and for the moment they are colouring up fast.

I’m also not sure where violet sits on the dietary spectrum but I’m secretly hoping that the exceptional pigment of the beauty berry Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’ is not a popular avian delicacy. I’ve been waiting for weeks for the unique colour to emerge and selfishly want to savour it for a little while longer. It is a surprising delicate treasure at this time of year.

The garden below is tree stocked and shrub covered and for historic reasons an irregular shape. Mid-summer had called for a flight to the sun (actually the sun was all around) and having booked a taxi to the airport, a somewhat relaxed approach to time-keeping prevailed. Nevertheless, once the taxi had arrived below with the usual last minute flurry and fluster all was assembled and the parked taxi located. However, there was no driver, which was difficult to explain and for a while disorientating until noticing that he was at prayer, kneeling in a peaceful spot, camouflaged by the greenery. When ready he rolled up his mat, greeted us, put his mat in the boot and drove away on time, having, I noticed, made an adjustment to his call to prayer and accomodated our time keeping. So I was pleased that we had been able to reciprocate and accomodate his need for a peaceful spot.

And if camouflage is required I might have the answer since my gardening glasses have a certain horticultural charm: old lenses, green frames, held together by a yellow paper clip – not a good look I am told but Hey!

New Arrivals

For some reason that I have been unable to explain completely to myself, and disinterests others, as I cross the threshold onto the balcony (and it was ever thus entering my own personal gardening space) I relinquish my hair-styled, make-up covered public self for the randomness of early morning nightwear or end of day disshevelment. I immerse myself, only to be seen by a few close neighbours on nearby balconies, and I suppose over-flying pilots with long lenses who I expect have better things to do than wonder about my rummaging and tinkering below. Of course sometimes I get caught out and an insistent door-bell requires a public encounter of an unexpected kind, although I try and remember to remove my paper-clipped glasses.

Meanwhile other recent arrivals have included carefully chosen Spring bulbs. The selection is the result of several evenings careful thought, recollections of previous favourites and the temptations of catelogues. Height, colour and estimated time of flowering are generally the governing principles but I’m not quite sure why I bother since as I have mentioned before, when it comes to planting I put them where I can and the carefully planned schemes are quickly abandoned. The results of impulse buying might I think, be just as pleasing, although first choosing and then planting does hold out for the possibility of another year, another season, something to savour, not to be rushed.

I now also have high expectations of the newest arrival – my ‘Benjamin’. In a rather unnecessary moment a few days ago I referred to a friend’s youngest child as her ‘Benjamin’. There was no reason to think she would be familiar with this French usage and she understandably took me to have forgotten her son’s name, which I hadn’t. The Biblical reference, although true, didn’t add anything and it would have been much more straightforward to have kept to plain English. Similarly though I always feel particularly protective of any new plant until sure of their intentions, and wonder if they will adapt to the exposed conditions and erratic care. Those that can and do accommodate to the prevailing conditions, remain particular favourites.

So with some trepidation I recently collected a replacement fruiting cherry tree Cherry Pigmy Kordia lovingly sourced and carefully stored, waiting to be planted. It has a beautiful form and is now happily installed (presumably my happiness rather than the plant’s) so I’m hopeful all will be well. In the meantime I have planted it in association with the essential micorrhizal fungal powder (see above) and having acquired some additional horticultural knowledge won’t be tempted to prune except in the summer, with July and August, I read, the recommended months. Silver leaf disease is a condition I’ve never heard of and is spread by air-borne spores, but the cuts heal quickly in high summer so other months are best avoided. Otherwise the omens are good.

When at its best my well-turned-out bijoux roof terrace speaks for itself as well as perhaps in part also speaking for me. Otherwise, it is work in progress and an opportunity for further experimentation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

A Little Knowledge

Lingering conversations with friends are often rather shaming as a real depth of knowledge on topics as wide ranging as Medieval history, 60s pop music, economics, architecture and yes, horticulture are difficult to match, with my sound-bite knowledge of more or less anything. Sadly no specialised subjects and shaming because I’ve often been something of a magpie – picking up other people’s trifles and treasures without the discipline, or thirst for knowledge, to really study a subject. But I am quite good at getting away with it, and as I am eligible for a bus pass, and have listened in to enough discussions and talked to enough people (and I am certainly interested in other people and their lives and experiences) I can convince myself and others that I have something to say, while learning a bit, and sometimes quite a lot, along the way.

So too with the blog.

As each post emerges I find that I have discovered something about the roof terrace I hadn’t noticed before, and that I’ve learned a bit more about container gardening too, while enjoying the comments and feedback, and the prompts to consider options I hadn’t thought about. One option I had hoped would develop into a reality was a ‘mini-orchard’. To this end I was given a very carefully sourced fruiting cherry early in the year but as regular readers will know, it has struggled and today I noticed, that either in spite of, or because of, my various administrations, has at last, very sadly, relinquished all signs of life.

Meanwhile a mature oak tree on the allotment site is a rich source of acorns each Autumn for marauding and hoarding squirrels. The sight of young emerging oaks among the bean poles is commonplace and unremarkable and frequently destined for compost. Aloft, on the other hand, a carefully tended acorn, now small oak, is treasured and will hopefully continue to prosper after its promising start, before in time also becoming compost or more optimistically re-located to a garden seeking established native plants or trees. But for now I will enjoy it while also very much missing the promise of my own hand-picked cherries. I will also contemplate the network of underground burrows and earthworks which are undermining the trees and shrubs in the garden below – with foxes probably to blame.

Learning and Lore

My knowledge of the urban fox, like much else, is superficial and often derived from snatched moments in the car while listening to Radio 4. I first saw images of urban foxes prowling around, in a memorable BBC documentary made in Bristol, at a time which seems now to be in the black and white era, pre-colour televison, but that I think is in fact conflating time past with infra-red pictures that were taken at night and were shown in black and white.

Hereabouts foxes frequently criss-cross the roads at dusk or when food is about, and 20 minute sound bites on Radio 4 have competition from Google and the Internet as the fount of all, albeit limited, knowledge.

At meal times my father made regular trips from the table to his study to unearth an obscure fact or detail, either to satisfy his own considerable thirst for knowledge or to provide the evidence for his side of an argument. Wikipedia can do the same, as long as a ‘no screens at the table’ rule doesn’t hold sway. I now know, have known for about 20 minutes, that the first known version of  ‘Mighty Oaks…….’ comes in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ 1374, where the line ‘As an oak cometh of a litel spyr’ (sapling) can be found. Let’s hope that my spyr does at least become a recognisable oak.

I’m not sure what Chaucer would have made of the global exchange of plants, but another tale of mixed fortunes concerns my ‘Eucalyptus nicholii‘. Only one survived of the original three purchased for their feathery leaves and elegant drooping habit, combined with modest height. One has flourished and withstood drought (which crisps them up), cold and irregular feeding, but the other two in time were too exposed to the cold winds and too far away from the warmth of the building to thrive, so I am trying again, one at a time. It has arrived, looks in good heart and will shortly be planted on, which if I am to follow the instructions involves the complications of finding a bigger air pot of the right size, applying the supplied slow release sulphur chips over the soil surface and then dressing with bark chips. Clearly I have a lot to learn about the care and nurture of eucalypti.

Spreading the Word

What I also learned reading the sale notice from the supplier Grafton Nursery, is that for each eucalyptus tree sold the nursery makes a contribution to ‘Business for Good’ which helps to supply clean water to parts of the world without, so if planning on buying a eucalptus this might be the supplier for you.

Another charity which I have only recently heard about is The Cindy Appleyard Foundation. Before retirement and the allure of life at a different pace, my working life involved working with children and families who were facing difficulties in one way or another. So this charity, which supports families in the most heart-wrenching of situations, when ordinary family life is disrupted, caught my eye.

I did at one time consider being a volunteer for a gardening project which was designed to help the ill or elderly, and would be equally helpful for families at a time of crisis with no time to garden. But I was cowardly and decided that my temperament, which tends to the bossy and controlling, might not be well suited to carrying out the owners’ wishes. I was probably right but it’s nothing to be proud of.

Beginning Again

Clematii are reshooting now that the promised rain and cooler weather have replaced the scorching days, hellebores have surprisingly been in flower for weeks, although I’m getting used to their irregular habits, and looking around there are still roses in flower, pelargoniums in flower and a great deal of greenery as the plants which have conserved their energies this hot, dry summer are hopefully readying themselves for a spectacular display next year.

And armed with advice from Monty Don (of Gardeners’ World) I will begin again too, since growing fruit in pots he describes as the ‘good-life in miniature‘. His potted orchard consists of plums, lemons, oranges, blueberries, a walnut, an apricot, mulberries, apples and a couple of olive trees.

I wonder why he doesn’t include cherries since they too (as mine was) can be bought on suitable dwarfing stock – perhaps I can ask. Meanwhile his other choices are rather daunting, although as I have three olives bearing fruit I could say I have a bit of a head start. I’m not sure that anything requiring winter shelter is going to work, so that rules out oranges and lemons as well as apricots, but the idea of a walnut is intriguing, and I can keep trying with my long suffering blueberry plant. It needs a companion and it needs rain, rather than tap water, to keep it going, but this year there was no option and unless I’ve skipped over the relevant section, Monty doesn’t mention pruning which I think I also need to bone up on.

The idea of a walnut in a pot might have cheered my father who was particularly fond of the nuts. My childhood garden had a beautiful spreading walnut tree of the right height and with the right canopy to provide dappled shade for summer meals enjoyed beneath. The kitchen however, was some way from the walnut tree so meals ‘en plein air’ involved trapsing with trays and trolleys the length of the house, up and down steps and across the much pampered grass. Because the carefully tended lawn was so precious, and occasionally used for games of croquet, the heavy wooden table was folded out and back again for every meal, frequently trapping our fingers. Chairs and cushions would follow. In late summer the crowning glory you might say, was the shower of walnut shells from above, as much to my father’s particular frustration the squirrels got there first, just before the nuts were fully ripe and ready to drop, and would sit along the branches eating nuts and shedding shells.

A picnic on the lawn might on the whole have been easier, but as I’m now more inclined to gravitate to grassy slopes (easier to get up from) rather then flat plains whenever there’s a choice, I have become more accepting of this long remembered elaborate summer ritual.

Up and Away

This long, hot summer has confirmed what I already knew, that lingering is essentially a garden activity rather than an accompaniment to high rise living. Here sun and wind, and in my case the essential compromise – upright chairs rather than anything more conducive to a siesta, limit the lingering. But plants need space (hence the upright chairs) and wild life need plants.

No squirrels or foxes to disturb the peace in this somewhat inaccessible spot, but extraordinarily wild life aplenty, with insects of all sorts enjoying the unkempt marginal areas at the foot of the parapet walls, occasional butterflies, although the effort of reaching a limited reward is barely in their favour, and pollinators enjoying a bumper year.

My personal favourites are the bumble bees, which come early in the year and stay late as the days shorten. As with a favourite child in small and subtle ways, as well as my deliberate planting choices, the setting has priviledged these faithful, gravity defying and photogenic visitors. My plan is to learn more about them since there are twenty-four varieties (or twenty-five apparently if you include the re-introduced ‘Short-haired bumblebee’) of which I understand only seven or eight species are widespread and abundant. Next year I plan to linger a bit longer and take greater note of my particular bumbles and their distinctive features. I may then go beyond my rather limited classification into ‘big, fat bumbles and the rest’.

But if one of the rewards of this year’s combination of weather, planting and horticultural management has been plenty of pollinators, with birds the story has been rather different as too many displaced feral pigeons, unsettled by nearby building works, gradually took over the water bath and food supplies as summer hotted up. Only the tits, camouflaged in the olive trees, survived the cut backs and continued to enjoy the peanuts, together with the occasional nuthatch in transit.

But the pigeons have gone, back to their familiar roosts, and an Autumn tidy-up is due. So with a redistribution of plants and people (chairs under the roof overhang, plants in the open) and more protection for the small garden birds hopefully, with the shorter days, and when experiencing shortages of food, the robins and blackbirds will return.

 

It is nevertheless a tricky balance as I’ve had a request for fewer plants, and more space to stretch out, which is also difficult to ignore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. You gave the cherry tree the best chance to spring back to life! The good news is that I contacted the supplier and they are very gratefully sending a replacement cherry tree next month ! Keen to hear better more cheery cherry tree stories in the blog! I do like the idea of growing nuts- how do almonds fair in this country ?

    • I think you might need to travel further South for almonds but I am hoping to include a miniature walnut alongside the new cherry – which is wonderfully generous of you and the supplier – thank you very much!

  2. I have never really taken to Bonsai trees but it might be fun to try with one of the oak seedlings from the allotment?

    • I’ve waited until now to reply as both the idea of returning the infant oak to a hedgerow sounds the right thing to do, whereas bonsaiing is tempting although like you I’m not always sure that I could be fond of the resulting tree. Maybe this is the moment to find out? The average temperature on the balcony has been much too high this summer for a plant that is at is best in the cool of the forest or growing in wide open spaces, but it seems to have revived again so I’m keeping my options open. Many thanks for the suggestion which is encouragingly unexpected.

The Rain it Raineth

Let it Rain

There are various schools of thought when it comes to watering containers, but at height, with windy conditions and a preference for the aesthetic appeal of terracotta, my view is that letting pots dry out completely is a risk. Even ‘Mediterranean’ plants (including lavenders and cistus) when confined to the limitations of a planter often need more water than you might think to flower and to flourish. I used to favour water retentive ‘pellets’ but as I am disinclined to measure I tended to get the proportions wrong resulting in cold jelly-like amalgamations amongst powdery compost. Now I generally water using a watering can for feeding and a hose for watering, with grateful thanks to my neighbours and their outside tap. So in the recent drought conditions I have devoted a considerable number of hours to leaning out of windows offering a life support system to which ever plants have been in reach.

Once upon a time I regularly travelled between London and the West Country and in long hot summers would watch the straw coloured grass give way to green as I made the journey home to the milder, wetter West. Even now, parched grass evokes memories of arriving with anticipation at southern holiday destinations in late evening at the end of an uncomfortable flight, and next morning being confronted by unfamiliar scents and vegetation – shrub sized cacti being the most exotic.

But the chance to linger on the sun baked balcony, nurturing the illusion of being part of the ‘olive belt’, has now gone, with the arrival of forty-eight hours of memorably heavy, albeit intermittant rain. The high rise olives are actually heavy with fruit, which used to be a popular treat favoured by the West Country tits. However, although the trees have made the journey east to the Metropolis and are happy aloft, the local birds, tits of all sorts, although regular visitors, seem to prefer peanuts to olives and leave the fruit to first fatten and then drop.

Time Passes

Earlier in the summer I nurtured the hope that the visiting, soon to be eight-year-old gardener, would enjoy some time on the balcony inspecting the ‘wild life area’, advising on insect homes and inbetween doing a bit of weeding in the far flung corners of this high rise spot. But times have changed, the balcony has become a perfect plane and crane spotting spot, and his true love is the allotment where there are potatoes to be dug, beans to be picked, sweetcorn to be inspected, and onions to dry as well as the essential weeding and watering.

A few weeks before he requested pumpkins ready for Halloween, and although size is not always everything, the giant Wallace Whoppers were carefully selected, planted, put in the cold frame and neglected. So in order to redeem the situation I used a rather disproportionate amount of time and effort looking for replacements, and rather than seeds found some Jack O’Lantern pumpkin plants which fortunately quickly established themselves in the ground, but as the name suggests are promising to be somewhat diminutive in size. Serendipitously while looking for a late sowing variety of beans I luckily spotted and bought some substitute Wallace Whopper seeds. Since the weather was warm and sunny, and my watering attentive, the seeds germinated quite quickly, and the plants were planted.

Now several weeks later, and having enjoyed the sun, they are not only growing well but their leaves are providing much needed shade for other allotment crops, particularly the nearby carrots and beetroot which are turning into ‘mini whoppers’ themselves. And nothing is stopping the production of courgettes, retarded a bit by the drought, but still cropping, and exhausting both my enthusiasm for new recipes, and the storage space in the kitchen. By tradition, a wall by the allotment is used for any surplus crops in exchange for an informal ‘neighbourhood watch’ scheme, but the direct route, straight from plant to compost bin, is becoming ever more attractive, without the inconvenience of cooking inbetween.

This summer the allotment has been a quiet and peaceful retreat, with only the occasional murmurings of Radio 4 breaking the sound barrier, although frequently much too hot to linger beyond essential maintenance. While aloft on the balcony the scene has often been alluringly beautiful as flora and fauna happily mingle in the sun, but particularly at week-ends, the calm is often interrupted by deafening noise as motor-bikes roar south, leaf blowers at the nearby school come into action and builders up the road work overtime. All accompanied by the shriek of parakeets.

However, abruptly, as if responding to a conductor’s baton, the noise will stop and once again this beautiful oasis can recover a sense of peace and tranquility.

The Birds and the Bees

I can report that often after picking the last of the peas and beans, lifting the first crop of potatoes, smelling the early sweet peas and doing a certain amount of allotment maintenance it would be time to go, leaving the peaceful site largely taken over by butterflies and pollinators, but much too hot for more hard work.

Deadheading the cosmos was always too erratic and it quickly became obvious that the dahlias would be on the losing side in any competetion. Wrong variety, too overcrowded, planted too late, too dry, soil not rich enough (perhaps in need of visiting wood pigeons) while a WhatsApp photo showed a dahlia at the prize winning end of the spectrum and something to emulate another time.

Meanwhile back on the balcony, while roses or rosemary are often plants for remembrance, for me it is wild marjoram – which would probably be very happy on the allotment but not so (as yet) on the balcony, and rather like attempts at managing mysterious medical ailments by trying too many different remedies which only confuse the picture, so too with this herb, which is still in need of an appropriate herbal remedy. However, I have been wonderfully compensated by the arrival of another ‘weed’ which now stands at over two foot, gives the bumble bees a  treat whenever they are passing, and faithfully offers beauty and abundant flowers week after week.

Help with identification would be welcome as I’m inclined to forfeit more sophisticated planting next season for more weeds of this sort – hoping that it is not on the prohibited list.

A Tale of Two Cherries

But all is not well in this illysian roof garden.

My Kojo No Mai Japanese cherry came through the Winter, and the Beast from the East, produced a wonderful, albeit brief display of snow-white blossom and a healthy cover of young leaves and extension growth on the branches, but then as the drought took hold, a rather curious distribution of leaf loss emerged.

The distal extremities continued to flourish while close to the centre of the tree, and incidently to the railings, all signs of leaves, leaf buds and health was vanishing fast – all down to a thieving magpie, which admitedly was probably thirsty, and upset by the not always consistent supplies of water, and was taking revenge by removing all the young, succulent, leaf buds.

Hopefully the tree will recover, although I now have an even more ambivalent relationship with the larger birds that swoop down for food.

However, much more disappointing, has been the repeated infestations of cherry black-fly that have taken over my eating cherry and defied manual removal, soapy-water spray, lady-bird ‘therapy’, surgical removal and much else besides. It will have to be found a new home on the allotment and given life-support treatment until it can hold it’s own.

Nevertheless this early late summer season has much to commend it as the urgency of keeping things going has been relinquished and the tapestry of plants, mostly doing their own thing, is an alluring combination of muted colours and soft scents, still a favourite haunt of  bumble bees.

 

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Even on this minute scale, redesigning and re-configuring the roof garden goes on. Some plants have done well and taken over, some have failed and the project to provide a more secluded seating area, shielded from the wind, has only been a partial success. True it is less draughty but it is so overcrowded that anything more social than one and a half chairs is impossible to fit in – I’ve had a request for space to put a tray for drinks of all sorts, but this would involve clearing the tiny round table of plants so has yet to be accommodated, although I can see that the trade off might be worth while.

A wisteria which arrived as an unpromising six inch stick-like specimen is now rambling through neighbouring plants, including the bay, olive and other plants offering support, so will soon be relocated. Wild strawberry plants are looking healthy, fuschias are preparing for shorter cooler days, and the catalogues offering spring bulbs are beginning to arrive. Loose abandonment and the limitations of space and circumstances will soon, once again, gradually give way to potting and planning.

 

 

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  1. Sweet Marjoram to quote – is stomachic, calmative choleretic, anti-spasmodic and a weak sedative – so it caterers for most things!! As well as flavouring vegetables and increasing “sex drive” in females – and presumably helping bruising thereafter! Now it is up to you …..

    • I didn’t know that wild marjoram was so useful so I hope the advice I’ve been given ( to import some rich chalky soil onto the balcony) will work well for next year……. I do think it is lovely so best of all good for the soul!

    • Well I hope that if I can have some of the compost that’s usually kept for the vegetables my dahlias do better next year…….but the thought of a competition will spur me on, hopefully, for better things.

Guano and Other Stories

Unintended Consequences

For several weeks, waking up in the long early mornings has been accompanied by a now familiar tapping sound as a pair of plump wood pigeons use the coping stones as a footpath from one side of the balcony to the other. Their early morning waddle is in search of water, although a gusty night, or oversight on my part, may mean they are out of luck.

Meanwhile high summer and the intense pleasure of gardening (frustrations notwithstanding) has somewhat taken over from musing and reflecting on life on the roof garden. The limited space is becoming an ever more cramped and over crowded succession of colours and textures and some more or less successful new ideas, including several additions of Tulbaghia ‘Purple Eye’ which are enjoying the warm days and tolerate the chilly winds. Problematically, although the pollinators seem to be happily enjoying the abundance, reaching the small seating area is becoming increasing difficult for anyone hoping for a quiet cup of coffee, as the plants spilling out of their containers are restricting the already limited opportunities to walk across this garden in miniature. This is a pity as the carefully chosen additions to the informal wind break have helped to moderate the impact of the wind.

The limitations of space also occasionally mean that bags of compost overnight in the main bedroom, which is a storage solution that is surprisingly well tolerated.

Noticeably too, the oldest of the olive trees, which I pruned last year with a certain amount of trepidation, and is now standing about eight feet tall, looks particularly handsome. This is in spite of the vicious winds earlier in the year and I can only assume that its exposed high-rise position is reminiscent of a Greek hillside. I have fed it from time to time (never very systematically) and watered it too, since a life-time spent in a cramped container requires a certain amount of assistance. However, one evening when heading to that end of the balcony, hose-pipe in hand, I realised that rather than whiffs of the scent of lavender or rose I was picking up the all too unwelcome, but distinctive smell of guano – ‘the accumulated excrement of bats and seabirds (or in my case wood pigeons) – useful as a fertilizer and with an extremely pungent and acrid smell’.

Several years ago I went to the Antarctic Peninsular. This involved not only sailing through the spectacular ice wilderness but opportunities to disembark in groups to observe the local wild life, all carefully controlled to avoid too much disturbance. We were warned that the stench of guano would be eye-watering and that we should strictly obey the injunction not to go beyond the red-line and approach the penguins, gathered in their thousands. We did as we were told, although since the penguins lacked language and literacy they curiously came towards us and crossed the line to surround us, giving them, at least momentarily, the upper hand.

However, the roof garden, mostly, looks a blowsy picture with more to come as the summer unfolds. Clematii come and go in turn, the roses too and there have been one or two unexpected treats. A gift of Anisodontea, a mallow native of South Africa, has flowered profusely, attracting insects the while, and the olives have all endured the winter woes. They then produced probably too much flower but since the bumble bees are particularly fond of their pollen, and are enjoying the abundance, and the tits will, I hope, enjoy the infant fruit in due course, I will happily sit back and share their pleasure.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”

In the winter months, when I am perusing gardening magazines, books or the internet in search of new ideas for the summer ahead, planting for wildlife is often in my mind – so bee friendly plants which I now know involve particular shaped flower parts for visiting pollinators, shrubby plants and trees as cover for visiting birds and a succession of flowers from early hellebores and rosemary, spring bulbs and summer buddleia (never my greatest success), with the salvias and verbenas lingering on into Autumn. And at the margins the essential neglected insect friendly corners remain mostly undisturbed.

The possibility of being part of a wildlife corridor both adds to the interest and focus for the planting but regrettably also engenders a certain smugness, which was heightened when the visiting young gardener referred to one end of the balcony as the ‘wild-life area’. Well I have tried, and insect houses, bird feeders and careful planting have all played a part, but it was an overly-flattering observation since my relationship with the local wild life has been a bit turbulent at times.

The aphids (greenfly on most of the balcony, blackfly on the fruiting cherry) left the roses and my newly acquired cherry ravaged. My benign regime of dilute washing up liquid, may as they say have resulted in clean aphids, but no limitation of damage – manual removal became a regular occupation but I was quickly out manoeuvered, so taking a leaf out of my neighbours’ book I used my on-line shopping skills to order some ladybirds, which duly arrived with instructions.

It felt harsh to put the ladybirds in the fridge for 30 minutes as they had already been tossed around in the post, and putting water for them to drink directly on the leaves near the release sites, was difficult to implement, but with help from a pencil (as prescribed) the ladybirds were re-housed across the roof garden with a particular high density located in the area around the cherry tree.

I have not seen any ladybirds since, and they may have gone into hiding, but the aphid population did seem to be a bit less for a while, although history does not relate whether this was an association or cause and effect.

A large white butterfly (presumably a Large Cabbage White) has just fluttered past my elevated window on this high rise site. Arriving or departing I’m not sure, but extraordinarily they do visit, small blues too, leaving me truly amazed by the ambition of the pollinators and other insects that regularly home in on the balcony even on gusty days like today.

Subsequently, in the midst of the aphid epidemic, and with the rambling rose visibly stressed and failing fast, I began a regime of heavy pruning wherever the damage was greatest and quickly reduced the rambler to a collection of sticks, rather than the  sprawling beauty it had once been. In my haste I failed to consider the impact on the garden birds, regular visitors to the carefully placed feeding station, screened by the rambler, tight up against the parapet wall, and visible through the bedroom window. Relocation to the nearby olive was not without consequences.

I abandoned the old feeder and replaced it with new feeders offering different menus and placed at different heights within the cover of the olive – but the tits, robins, blackbirds and others were deterred by the magpies and bolder wood pigeons who quickly asserted themselves. And thus began the new order of things – I would rearrange the feeders, the larger birds would quickly find a way though or under the silvery foliage whilst driving the smaller birds away, and with their appetites sated the pigeons in particular would linger, and I now realise fertilize the olive tree.

However, while the birds continue to enjoy the neighbouring garden trees the rambler is recovering fast and I am hopeful that the original feeding regime will be restored, at least in time for the shorter days.

Garden Envy

It is churlish to suggest that sitting out, glass in hand, surrounded by tree tops, and with swallows swirling above, the balcony is not a source of great pleasure, enviable in its own way. But at this time of year, in these mid-summer moments, it doesn’t fulfill all the hopes that come with languid days, the chance to linger with family and friends and the memories born of sunny days.

For that I think you need grass.

And with grass, if you are fortunate, come pop-up cricket pitches, deep flower borders, space in sun or shade and a chance to show off plant combinations too big for a balcony or with scents blown away by the high-rise gusts. Unless it’s a beautiful rose managing to provide both.

Meanwhile imaginative high rise gardening is expanding locally and elsewhere and a ride on the nearby section of the District Line is now a sight to behold, with ‘Bee Friendly Society’ raised beds at every station. Although they can’t quite compete with wild life friendly gardens offering rare sightings of nocturnal visitors, such as hedgehogs enjoying a mid-night feast of mealworms or bird-table scraps.

Gardening Notes

The Echium is flourishing in the allotment surrounded by cosmos ready to pick and dahlias beginning to emerge, while the late planted sweet peas continue to struggle upwards. The mare’s tails in the neighbouring strip are ready to undermine this new planting but I’m told will be less troublesome in a month or so’s time.

On the other hand, in a shady corner of the balcony a Hellebore is coming in to flower, presumably mistaking shade for winter even though day time temperatures are currently in the mid 20s and I’ve just cut back the last of last year’s flower stalks.

It is odd that early flowering Hellebores seem to have become something of a speciality on this windy, sun soaked, high rise, generally shade lacking spot – but all are welcome.

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  1. Poor M – as well as compost in the main bedroom you are going to have Tulbaghia and Anisodontea as well (in the winter) and presumably the Hellebores in summer!!

    • Well I am hopeful that as another variety of Tulbaghia was even flowering while it snowed last winter (presumably because the roots were still warm enough) the new plants will manage too if I can find a sheltered spot. Over-wintering the Anisodontea I can see will be much more challenging, but I have got the possibility of using a space surrounded by the warmth of the building on three sides. Pelargoniums too have survived with their backs against the bedroom wall and their faces catching the winter sun but I agree this is all rather optimistic.

  2. It all looks lovely. By the sound of it I wouldn’t be surprised if the pigeons have a go at nesting in the olive tree. They only seem to need a few twigs for a nest. Have your tried those squirrel proof bird feeders?

    • I hadn’t anticipated nesting pigeons, but serendipitously a shoot from a new clematis has scrambled through the olive, hopefully obstructing the path of any birds seeking a new home – I’m not sure that clematii climbing through olives are a recommended plant combination but actually particularly lovely when the early light catches the silver leaves.