Summer’s End

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvest Feast

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

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

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

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

Late Arrivals

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

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

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

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

Some Reflections on Gardening Aloft

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

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

And Finally

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

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

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

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Dust to Dust

From the Big Bang to the Back Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do the Bumble Bees Cross the Bedroom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything’s Coming up Roses

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening Notes

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Greening Up

 

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

It’s hard to predict the future.

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

Gardens are Made by Sitting in the Shade to misquote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Urban Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Thoughts

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Life under Lockdown

 

Looking Back

Tuesday 1st December The current lockdown has two more days to run and then (subject to tonight’s vote in the House of Commons) we are anticipating that hereabouts Tier 2 rules will apply.

But that is for the future, and for now, confined as we all are to various degrees, the wintry sun is bright, above the horizon a hazy light blue sky stretches high and wide and through the tall, skeletal trees there are pockets of Autumnal colour clinging on. In this moment I’m reminded of my fortunate circumstances.

Think of any street in a suburban or urban area, or a road in a country town or outlying village and turn it through ninety degrees, stand it on its head and there you have it – a converted Edwardian school with the old school honours boards on every floor, close to forty households and surrounded by a garden bordered by trees twice as old as time and protected by period gates liable to struggle with the complexities of entry codes. From my eerie at the top of the building I can see for miles as the leaves on the trees nearby have dropped and the skyline is once again dominated by a majestic cedar.

A little while ago someone I’ve known all my life, told me she thinks balcony gardens are boring. Maybe this isn’t their moment, the absence of a history and a future, other than in the imagination, their transience, coming as it does with the awareness that it will only take a few hours and all is gone. It is of course possible to recover quickly from damaging winds, horticultural mistakes, neglect and overcrowding and to conjure up wonderful displays, recover from failed experiments and have a year round display all within arms reach, and with beneficial insects and pollinators in mind. But I think I know what she might mean. There are times when planting for the future, or feeling a connection with the past, has added value and significance.

Balconies, roof gardens and other opportunistic spaces have nevertheless come into their own this year and have been a place of solace and a source of edible crops for unexpected first-time gardeners and others whose circumstances have changed during the course of the year.

While picking up a picture from a gallery I know, I recently, and rather unexpectedly, heard about an extremely successful crop of tomatoes that had grown happily through the Summer on a terrace in West London. I’ve never grown tomatoes as the combination of watering requirements at key points in the holiday calendar, the absence of  a greenhouse and the inevitable expectation that the end of season fruits are turned into chutney (my mother’s preserving pan has been a valued decorative piece for years) has never tempted me, but it’s a thought.

Meanwhile I’ve had it both ways – the immediacy of the planting outside my bedroom door, closed firmly now as mice have been venturing indoors, with the possibility of transplanting anything that has grown too big to the gardens below, or more often to the flower strip at the allotment, for a more permanent future.

Caryopteris (bluebeard) are a case in point. These faintly scented late-flowering plants with golden, silvery or indeed mid-green leaves also come in a wide range of flower colour – pink, white or more commonly and spectacularly deep blue (including the aptly named cultivar ‘Heavenly Blue’. They are happy enough in containers for one or two seasons, are beloved by pollinators, particularly bees, and are so life enhancing that the wrench at the end of the season, when another year’s growth would crowd out much else, is worth the pain of separation as Autumn approaches. They come highly recommended if you want to extend the season and have masses of colour, as well as offering a feast for foraging insects later in the year, and they do transplant happily.

Saturday December 19th As allotments have remained permitted public spaces, although in other respects under the recently introduced Tier 3 rules restrictions have tightened, we have been rendezvouing most weekends with one permitted other (the 10 year old gardening grandson) and caught up too with neighbouring allotment holders, all socially distanced.

But inevitably this has to come to an end – the allotment is ready for Winter, the green manure is sprouting well while other areas have been weeded, dug over and covered for now, although another year more cabbages could fill the void. Optimistically a few herbs, including rosemary and thyme, have been carefully planted and labelled by the ten year old, the garlic has been checked over, and the broad beans are growing.

We’ve arrived from different directions under leaden skies, feeling somewhat subdued and distracted by the news that we are likely to hear an announcement at any moment that we will soon be in Tier 4 and inevitably changing plans for the festive season. The sombre mood is catching but begins to lift as plans for strawberry planting are instigated by the quieter than usual 10 year old who’s thinking ahead. The glimpse into the future is catching.

Competition for space at the allotment is growing and as with the balcony, selecting and censoring the planting list comes with painful choices. However, containers are well suited for any number of herbs, which can be squeezed in amongst other pots and plants. But parsley never works for me in a pot, as it doesn’t like drying out, and although growing mint in containers is recommended to avoid the problem of annexation of the surrounding growing space, it also needs to be kept well watered if the pot is standing on a hard surface rather than plunged into the ground.

Wednesday December 23rd 15:24 I’m distracted and struggling to write anything very coherent – my phone is close by and I’m reminded every couple of minutes by News Editors picks that a ‘Brexit trade deal is imminent , says EU diplomat’. A second message says a new Covid variant from South Africa has been found in the UK, with all that that entails, and millions more people will enter Tier 4 on Boxing Day. It’s difficult to hold strong and conflicting feelings (hope for the first, dread of the second) alongside the turbulent emotions engendered by  memories of Christmasses past and anticipation of this very particular and different year, as well as familiar everyday anxieties about being ‘ready’ for Christmas – which this year means a virtual Christmas relying on Zoom, WhatsApp and the phone. I’m too old to communicate via Facebook and Twitter but not so old that I don’t happily opt to Zoom to fill some of the gaps in my diary.

Oscillating between reflections on my immediate surroundings and the wider picture has an inevitably surreal quality. The contrast is stark. Certainly from the warmth and security of my comfortable vantage point, the roof garden continues to look quite lush.   All the silvery leaved evergreens are in good heart, with the olives leading the way, holding onto some fruit and with new growth emerging. A late-planted dwarf Eucalyptus Gunii (who knew there was such a thing) has yet to reassure me that it wasn’t an unwise purchase as the hoped for new growth hasn’t in this instance emerged and it looks rather alien amongst its Mediterranean and ‘cottage garden style’ neighbours. I may need to steel myself for a radical rethink but I don’t think that it will be a welcome addition to the shrubberies below, still less at the allotment. I will wait and see.

 

Inside I have some fruiting ‘gum’ stems, bought from the local flower stall and bringing indoors the welcome and evocative smell of eucalyptus oil. However, earlier this morning I noticed that for the first time in many years there are no roses in bloom for Christmas – rosemary yes, hellebores yes but yet to reach their prime, the wild mallow that arrived with the heat of the Summer yes, and brightly coloured pelargoniums as well as the ‘Cornish Daisy’, Erigeron karvinskianus.

 

December 24th 8:30 The sun is up, blue skies have returned and a bumble bee is enjoying the available mallow.

News Editors picks confirms that an EU deal has been agreed and adds later that Storm Bella is forecast to hit many parts of the UK which will be battered by heavy winds over the next few days.

‘I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape.

S0mething waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.’

Andrew Wyeth American artist 1917-2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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    • Many thanks for your comment – another year, and if I ever have a much bigger crop, I might take my olives to a small co-op the other side of London that will press them, but it’s unlikely to be a commercial venture. Meanwhile I’m pleased you’ve noticed how astonishingly beautiful and appetizing the olives still look in spite of being raised in unlikely conditions.

Faded Glory

 

Early Lessons

Perhaps I can learn some elementary Italian while teaching my Sardinian neighbours some basic horticultural principles – watering, feeding, right plant right place. The lessons have begun with my neighbours being introduced to ‘Spring bulbs’ the stalwart of Autumn planning and planting although I have yet to learn the Italian word for bulbs.

It was mid-September, and high Summer had returned briefly to the roof garden when we had the first (informal) Level 1 introductory gardening tutorial. It came as a surprise to my tutees that on-going care was often required to ensure a spectacular display in due course, that finding plants to provide bright winter colour throughout an English Winter would be a challenge on a small balcony and that there were outgoings such as plant food and compost that would need to be funded and sourced.

I later suggested adding some particularly cheerful red wallflowers to the shopping list.

At the same time, millions of acres of land were being destroyed by raging fires on the West Coast of America with mounting loss of life and livelihoods as vineyards shrivelled, smoke plumes rose and homes were lost. In Britain, after damaging floods earlier in the year the South West corner of England was battered by Atlantic storms during August, which exceptionally reached a sufficient magnitude to be named before moving north to Wales with devastating effect.

All hard to comprehend as the bees were still buzzing and the roses still blooming, flattered by the soft early morning sunlight and touched by a very gentle breeze. Hereabouts the idyll is interrupted not unusually by a noisy flock of parakeets unwilling to come too close to the building but making their presence felt perching on the dead horse chestnut opposite, while others prefer to squawk from further off. Sadly man’s hand has played a part in the tree’s demise, since after decades growing to full height, then lopped to ensure its twilight years, careless tarmacing by the property next door has brought this elderly, probably disease-ridden but majestic tree to its knees.

*                         *                          *                          *                         *                         *

It’s now mid-October and the horse-chestnut has gone, wider vistas have opened up and before I had a chance to establish an effective barricade of silver evergreens and other shrubs, the full force of Storm Alex hit. This is not without consequence as a vulnerable area, in an awkward spot (and last repaired in 2017 more or less coinciding with my first post on 3rd August that year) has resulted in water leaking into the flat below and once again we are left helpless in the face of Nature’s onslaught until drier weather and further repairs are completed.

Late Offerings

I’ve never made it to the East Coast of America in the Fall to coincide with the trees showing their wares, displaying spectacular vivid crimson and flame coloured leaves in Vermont, New Hampshire and elsewhere. If you time it right I believe you can follow the earliest changes in colour first in the colder north before travelling south as the seasonal display unfolds. All of which is tempting but may not reach the top of my ‘must see’ list as and when plans of this sort can be easily entertained again.

More immediately there are any number of spectacular displays closer to home, with gardens and hedgerows full of berries and leaves in Autumnal colours, which as they fall reveal half-hidden gems, like the magnificent cedar rising above the surrounding deciduous trees nearby no longer hidden by the craggy horse chestnut.

The combination of listening to the radio while preparing food often works well, and thus it was I happened upon the tail end of an interesting and comprehensive expositon of the processes by which leaves turn from green to yellow and red as the days shorten, and morning mists return. Key fluctuations in the weather, as well as the quality of the soil, play their part in this complex Autumnal rite with the emergence too of anthocyanin to add red colouration, and made afresh alongside the redistribution of nutrients associated with the  breakdown of chlorophyll.

My attempts to introduce some Autumn colour, berries preferred, onto the roof garden have never met with much success. The nearest I managed was a rather neglected blueberry which did it’s best but as it wasn’t one of a pair didn’t fare well. Cotoneasters have been recommended and there are smaller varieties such as Cotoneaster naoujanensis ‘Buried Treasure’, which I have planted in the large containers which front the main entrance to the building, but its arching branches may take up too much space aloft, although I’m tempted to try and wonder why I haven’t done so before.

Hits and Near Misses

 

If you want to find make use of a roof-top space these would be my top tips, none of which are original, but which certainly hold true if you enjoy gardening, want to make use of an outdoor space however small and have a sunny situation. The same is probably true of a shady spot but plants choices would have to be rather different.

 

 

  • Plant what you like rather than what you think would be a sensible choice for a particular situation. In a very small space you will treasure every plant and each will be very visible. But I’m beginning to think that my wonderful thulbaghias, which are the mainstay of the floral display from April to December, may have to be kept in check – they are alliums and the oniony aroma has rather dominated the space this Summer.
  • Plant as many tall plants and small trees as space and weight considerations allow. As the taller plants form a framework, your roof garden will become a 3-D space. The thalictrum flowered for months this year, with the tallest over 8ft, and formed an informal hedge filling in some of the gaps between the bay and olives and taller roses and clematii. As they are herbaceous perennials they arrive as the days lengthen and vanish again as the days shorten, so ensuring that you don’t lose precious daylight in the Winter months, but they will take two or three years to reach their full potential. They are also surprisingly resilient even when grown in comparatively small containers. Unphazed by the Summer storms and happy to intermingle with other tall plants, including gaura and verbena bonariensis, they formed a fairly successful mutual support group this year, benefiting from their different growing habits.
  • If they are plants you like (see point 1) silver leaved trees and shrubs can combine permanent planting and continuity without cutting out too much light. I have four olives in various containers in different parts of the balcony and along pathways leading to the main, albeit miniature, terrace. They all get fed and watered quite regularly but not very systematically – three are producing olives, looking healthy and are very beautiful, the fourth has been in the ‘sick-bay’ all year and hasn’t really responded to my care and attention so I could/should use the container for something else. But I haven’t the heart to let my sickly olive go, partly I suspect as I think I overlooked it last year when we were again dealing with floods and roof repairs.
  • If you are fortunate you will have wonderful neighbours who share their water supply, or perhaps pass on plants as they come and go. Four of my favourite silver leaved plants, including one of my treasured olives and a rosemary, were a departing gift and I’m hopeful that the same plants might be given temporary lodgings by the new occupants as and when the way has to be cleared for surveyors and builders.
  • It’s disappointing to plant something, whether on a whim, or carefully thought out, that turns out for one reason or another to be the wrong plant in the wrong place, but depending on your circumstances and inclination experiments can have surprising results and are well worth considering. Not so much an experiment, but arguably an unnecessary expense, have been garden or outdoor items that never quite did what it said on the tin: such as the beautiful and expensive heavy oak doorstop bought to keep open a door to nowhere except a small area for plants, that wasn’t tall enough, and is now acting as a prop for some other garden equipment. Or the narrow headed, long handled brush, specially designed to reach awkward corners of balconies and terraces, but which couldn’t be used at its full extent with the bristles at an effective angle.

But on the other hand who knew that self-seeded mallows will attract the bees well into Autumn, clematii and roses of all sorts are wonderfully happy aloft and if you are lucky enough to have a back-drop of tall trees and far reaching views you are well compensated for all the planting plans and garden projects that can never make it onto the drawing board, while of course missing the rustle of leaves underfoot and pining for space for a few more plants.

Nota bene – according to the Chambers dictionary –‘il bulbo’ is the Italian for bulb, or perhaps more correctly, ‘bulb’, the English word for any subterranean bud with swollen bases in which reserve materials are stored, is derived from L – bulbus or Gk – bolbos (onion). Meanwhile I have yet to have my first Italian lesson.

To Autumn

John Keats – 1795-1821

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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  1. Japan is also a great place to see the autumn leaf colours, and the islands’ orientation north to south ensures a progression of colour so the visitor can choose where to go to see the best.
    Much like the better known sakura blossom, the progress of the leaf colours is reported on the national news.

    • Thank you for your comment and reminder that travelling to Japan offers rich rewards for anyone wanting to be steeped in Autumnal colour and much else besides. I was particularly struck by your mention of regular updates on the development of the leaf colour on the national news……… if only.

      I have very little understanding of Japanese gardens, although for a while had a Japanese language student staying who found our shaggy terraced garden to be a bit of a mystery, while I particularly remember being mesmerised by her neat servings of beans on toast – the beans were placed alongside (but with space between) a very neat row of small triangles of toast. My offerings felt very clumsy by comparison, but surprisingly perhaps baked beans were a firm favourite during her year with us.

Soft Refreshing Rain

 

Sultry Summer Days

Mid-August was hot and humid for days. Thunder and lightning but no rain, and for a long while grass like straw, shrivelled plants, early leaf fall and dust in the air.

But the bees on the balcony still had a ball – Caryopteris, Verbena Bonariensis and my unnamed self-seeded mallow, which came back into flower, provided plenty to enjoy, with olive fruits adding to the Provencal scene. However, lingering outside in the evenings wasn’t without it’s challenges (competition from the roar of returning traffic being the most obvious) while the various sensual pleasures evoked treasured but elusive memories before they quickly slipped away again.

I also returned to some proper gardening (clipping, weeding, dead-heading, planning ahead) as opposed to providing a life support system of food and water – the former rather erratic in supply locally as the benefits of seaweed based preparations are leading to shortages or maybe stockpiling, who knows, and the latter possibly not as often as the plants would like, but more than any water shortage measures would support. The thalictrum have been cut down to size after flowering for months, and their willowy beauty being admired from afar, all Summer long. On the allotment, garlic and purple sprouting broccoli are already being sourced for Autumn planting, prompted by a visit from the interested ten year old – now the proud producer of a very impressive cucumber.

But what a difference a day makes – a twenty minute shower and we could all breath again and after another forty-eight hours of intermittent thundery rain, an Atlantic mist then settled over the neighbourhood, with the church spire on the brow only just visible.

This is the time when thoughts turn to next year and the successes and failures of this Summer season. One being missing out on planting nerine bulbs earlier in the year. These would be flowering now and adding a certain slightly over the top vivid, or possibly slightly more subdued, pink display.

Summer is now tipping into Autumn and one of my favourite clematis has come back into flower, rather moth-eaten and not as prolific as first time around, nor is the unexpected flush of the rambling rose outside the bedroom window quite as rosy pink, but the wild mallow is flowering prolifically again, as are the salvias, and August is happily the month for the variegated tulbaghia to outshine everything else.

Horticultural Lessons

My father was a keen gardener, much in love with, and in awe of, the gardens at Rousham House, Oxfordshire, designed by William Kent but also with an eye for the combination of shapes and colour that traditional herbaceous boarders could do well on any scale. If I was lucky as a little girl I would travel in state on top of the wheel barrow bearing their cut-down stems, together with Autumn leaves, en route to the compost pile, which by bonfire night had morphed into a funeral pyre before being straddled by an old stuffed shirt with a mask and hat on top and set alight as the prelude to an evening of catherine wheels and rockets, sparklers and sausages, with the kitchen window a convenient viewing gallery.

I was never particularly keen on dahlias, one of the mainstays of the gardens of my childhood, until the relatively recent renewed enthusiasm, with Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter leading the charge, for both older and new varieties. The wide ranging forms, as well as the bright and also beautifully soft colours, began to tempt me. But I chose unwisely for the flower strip at the allotment a couple of years ago and might have done better to emulate the neighbouring plots planted with long stemmed varieties in unmissably bright colours, or better still the family expert whose WhatsApp photos of coral pink and rich red dahlias, with long-lasting flowers, confirm they are evidently growing happily in a flower border in Wiltshire. For any keen flower arranger these blooms would be enviable pickings, unlike the dahlias I grew, which were quickly eclipsed by the taller cosmos and rotted without a trace at the end of the season.

I have also been put off by the dedication required to lift, store and label – all of which I now understand is unnecessary if you live in a warmer part of the country (tick) and give the crowns a generous layer of Winter protection.

However, to really embrace dahlia growing I might need to put childhood memories to one side.

As I grew older, helping our lovely Saturday gardener (mentioned in previous editions) was educational and something of a treat as he always shooed me indoors at the point when I was getting bored and he needed to get on. My formidable father on the other hand always overestimated my enthusiasm and particularly on the brink of a family holiday, with tensions riding high, and the ritual deadheading and watering to be done and time running out, stepping into the role of under-gardener was always rather fraught as my father’s sensitive soul was deeply hidden at these moments.

My job was often to deadhead the dahlias so that we would come back from our travels to a beautiful display. I had been shown what to do, I knew what to do but under the pressure of the moment the round buds yet to come into flower could easily be confused with the conical shaped seedpods that I was tasked to remove. The herbaceous border was long and the dahlias buried amongst a range of other plants including golden rod, mildewy Michaelmas daises and prickly roses with ants’ nests underfoot. Luckily the compost pile wasn’t far away so a little deft re-arranging of some grass cuttings over the bucket load of dead headed dahlia stems covered my trail and with it my dread of getting it wrong.

Looking after other peoples’ gardens, in what ever way, always feels onerous – not least because private passions and gaps in knowledge can so easily collide, and it often takes a while to acquire a certain useful level of horticultural knowledge. I imagine that confusing flowers that have come to the end of their life with plants that have died, might be a difficult distinction particularly by mid-August, customarily mid-holiday season, as by then everything tends to have begun to look somewhat sorry for itself. So it is particularly impressive to hear of someone continuing to water the plants in her mother’s garden with the belief that doing so might be futile. Meanwhile her mother waited anxiously to see what had survived and the answer, unexpectedly but unsurprisingly, was everything.

I’ve admitted previously that I am by nature rather too bossy to be safely let loose offering gardening advice to anyone with horticultural questions, particularly as I’m also keener on the overall set design than on really learning more about a wider range of plants and planting conditions as opposed to greater appreciation of their decorative qualities or appeal to pollinators.

I’ve never been very good at doing my home-work and it might be true that my spelling did not improve as I grew older, perhaps partly in response to my mother’s spelling corrections – frequently part of the contents of her letters to me when I was away at school and actually old enough to spell quite well. The family news and general interest in my world with its ups and downs made for much more absorbing reading, but I later headed for a profession notorious for it’s poor hand-writing (my weapon of choice to conceal my bad spelling in pre-spell checker days) and a career my mother was always strongly in favour of: make of that what you will.

Instead I’ve tended too often to rely on ‘winging it’ although it is also true to say I’ve absorbed a certain amount of knowledge along the way which has certainly added to my interest in the world of horticulture and the part in plays in the lives of many of us, revealing as it often does our preferences and privileges – from childhood ambitions to have a ride-on mower, the careful nurturing of souvenir cacti, growing mustard and cress on window-sills or hyacinth bulbs indoors, planting and pruning alongside family and friends, the stirrings of garden envy and elaborate planting ambitions, the rewards of growing from ‘plant to plate’, a wider interest in all green issues and the dawning reality that not all is possible, especially as you get older.

Sheltering from the Storm

Finding insects aloft is always a delight but certainly not to be taken for granted. The Caryopteris is teeming with bees at this time of year and while the bumble bees head first for the verbena their solitary relations also visit in large numbers, so hopefully my various bee/bug homes have found favour. Ladybirds are very common, indoors and out, and plenty of woodlice and other unidentified life too – more surprising (remembering that the balcony is on the fourth floor of an Edwardian building with high ceilings) is the occasional passing cabbage white butterfly but a grasshopper! It may have leapt too far as it vanished after spending a few hours resting stock still on a kitchen cabinet and resisted all attempts to lure it outside. However, the next morning it unexpectedly joined us for breakfast, landing first on an available forearm before accepting the invitation to re-join the outside world.

So much to observe and take in, albeit on a minute scale, but the roof garden has been a fortunate, safe sanctuary during the recent long and uncertain days. First in the silence, then the coming together of the Thursday ‘clap’, conversations across the roof spaces, and later offering the possibility of welcome privacy when sheltering furtively under the shade of the flimsy parasol. Now the familiar patter of rain drops has taken over as steady rain has settled in for another day keeping me indoors while in the wider world, and in different ways, the lockdown is being partially lifted.

 

Yasmine Shamma has written in ‘The Conversation” about gardening, and makeshift gardens, as ‘a universal antidote’. The hope and optimism that refugees, particularly in Jordan, invest, while waiting, in the cultivation of the land and the planting of seeds is humbling and inspiring too with the central importance for refugee gardens, of measuring time, as they do, ‘as a slow, seasonal clock’.

 

A Postscript

 

If the rhythms of gardening and the tending of plants, with all the various anciliary activities, can provide hope, solace, visual pleasure and much more, then a recent walk along a cliff path, while staying in Cornwall, was a reminder that nature often does it best – not so flamboyant maybe, but full of the hidden treasures as captured above.

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  1. I write about Dahlias on your allotment and your urge to keep them well protected through the winter.
    I wonder if one still needs to do that? This winter géraniums and fuchsias in our SW19 garden survived and flourished with no protection. Géranium in pot, fuchsia in the earth. So this year I am tempted to leave my dahlias in the earth instead of that tedious business of lifting, storing and planting.
    Looking to the past I had a principal lesson learned from our old gardener (not in London but in Newbury) that Cabbage Whites were pests that needed to be eliminated. Today in SW19 they are of course a rare delight to treasure.

    • Thank you very much for your comment and encouragement to try planting dahlias again! Your comment about cabbage whites also reminded me that I had intended to spend 15 minutes this year at the allotment doing the ‘Big Butterfly Count’ but somehow the moment came and went so another time perhaps. I had hoped that if I got my eye in I might spot some less familiar (to me) butterflies alongside visiting cabbage whites.

  2. I didn’t use to like dahlias much either. I was told as a child that earwigs hid in them and then when I tried the odd one in a border they got swamped and eaten by slugs and snails. But after I retired I tried again and now grow them all together at one end of the veg patch, the bigger and blowsier the better. Good for cutting as they seem to last quite well indoors.

A Purple Patch

That Rainy Day in London Town

How many hours a day, or week, does it take to look after one small roof terrace and a number of plant filled passages? It’s the sort of question that I rather enjoyed at school – if it takes six men 5 days to plough three fields how many days would it take eight men to plough 13 fields?

I have about 75 containers at any one time; with small succulents needing very little attention, small trees (including olives, my favoured Eucalpytus Nicholii, pittosporum and a bay) also on the whole needing very little attention as long as I remember to feed, water and occassionally prune a bit, and a wide range of attention seeking herbaceous and seasonal plants. Not forgetting roses and climbers which are pretty forgiving.

Access to some parts of the narrowest planted areas is challenging. Watering and feeding involve leaning out of bed-room windows, while anything requiring greater horticultual skill or endeavour also involves clambering out of the same windows, and of course back in again. So best to avoid wrenching a muscle or injuring a foot the wrong side of the bedroom window. In truth the passages all interconnect with the main balcony, but since getting past the containers of roses and other large plants to reach a door is as challenging as clambering back indoors, keeping uninjured is recommended.

I have very vivid memories of locking myself out of a garden flat in West London. At the time it was still quite a bohemian area, with antique dealers and antiquarian book-sellers dominating the browsing and shopping scene. It later became an expensive high-end retail destination but luckily for me that was yet to come. If you are going to lock yourself out, it’s best to be dressed in rather more than a shabby dressing-gown with bare feet, and better still to be close to a small hotel used to eccentric requests. In that pre-mobile phone era I needed someone to call a locksmith, which the receptionist did, without batting an eyelid, while her colleague was talking to an elegant couple checking out of the hotel. My excuse was that I had ‘flu at the time, and had answered the front door when the postman rang and for some reason then crossed the threshold as the door closed firmly behind me.

I had a lot to be grateful for, although I was also quite shocked by the speed and effortlessness with which the locksmith opened the door, which rather detracted from my faith in expensive locks.

Mid-June, and before wind, rain and yet more wind became the norm after the earlier languid days, I did some rearranging on the main terrace, swapping over a very heavy container with a bay tree, and one of the olives. It was a good idea, and reassuringly easy, as my left shoulder has at long last recovered from an early lockdown injury. Pulling large containers backwards and forwards, through the seasons and for different light conditions, flowering interest and general well-being is a good alternative to other exercise regimes.

And as the weather changed I began to notice the emergence of several, delightful Hellebore flowers, which more usually arrive in time for Christmas.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Now to the plants:

Tall herbaceous perennials surprisingly seem to cope with the cramped conditions, and the extremes of heat and wind, that the relatively small containers and changeable weather has thrown at them.

Verbena bonariensis heading for the skies, thalictrum delavayi tallest of all at eight foot and more, and the unmemorably named Veronicastrun virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’ (Culver’s foot) are all competing for height and have recently been joined by the pretty spikes of Gaura lindheimeri, which answers to a number of variations of its name. Anyone who is growing thalictrum amongst other tall plants may have discovered that in addition to their delicate beauty they do a very good job of supporting any other tall plants nearby, as long as they themselves have enough support to allow some gentle swaying in the wind without the risk of keeling over.

They are all very beautiful and surprisingly happy;  I would recommend them to anyone who wants to sit amongst the summer show, watching the insect world, surrounded by plants of all heights offering different interest. In the quiet of the hot days of the early lockdown the possibility of plants feet taller than me seemed very remote. Now it’s the norm to be outranked, but the colour choice is conservative.

Meanwhile at ground level different varieties of tulbaghia have taken over.

After my success rearing butternut squash and sweetcorn seedlings for the allotment it is my turn now: Aquilegia ‘Lime Sorbet’. You may have a packet too as they came free with June’s edition of Gardener’s World Magazine. While engaging with much of the outside world – talking with friends, music lessons, quizzes or professional meetings, not forgetting shopping, is done remotely, and news comes on-line, a few months ago we reversed the trend and went back to hard-copy for the GW magazine, not so much for the very welcome free seeds but for ease of flitting between articles.

Aquilegias are great plants for pots and flower happily as late Spring turns into Summer. My absolute favourite is Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Ruby Port’. It’s a soft deep red, happy in sun or shade and always looks very at home. None this year though as last year’s Autumn planting was interrupted. ‘Lime Sorbet‘ on the other hand is a beautiful soft limey white and will hopefully look good when there’s not much competition around.

Luckily since our local garden centre is open again, having managed to keep going through the bleakest days of the lockdown, I’m hoping to find some seed compost and horticultural grit. My last purchase was a terracotta pot that turned out to be too small for ‘potting on’ my favourite olive, which will now have to make do with some extra seaweed feed. I clearly need to pay more attention to detail before embarking on any more purchases. In many situations an extra, generously proportioned pot, bought half-price, would be something of a bonus, another mini project, something to fill another time. Unfortunately on the balcony it’s created pressure on space that I could really do without as everything is growing well and spilling over into the gangways. So if I remain true to my earlier pledge to ensure that it is always possible to walk across the terrace without undue difficulty, even in high Summer, I must pass it on.

Pests, Weeds and Diseases

The difference between a gardener with a real interest in horticulture and a gardener who wants to have a few favourite plants and trees, that enhance the outdoor space without generating too much hard work, might be exemplified by the following question posed by a nearly 10yr old, while wandering together but yards apart across the Surrey Downs – “what should we be planting now?”

We’ve missed his horticultural wisdom, energetic digging and enthusiastic watering.

Equally enthused by recently planted seeds showing promise, and remarkably patient when growing vegetables, he has a sense of the need to think and plan ahead for the gardening year which I only grasped much later in life. As he already has a cucumber plant, and his broccoli seeds are germinating, beetroot or carrots might be the answer, but I couldn’t come up with anything at the time and instead covered up with a reminder that it was really a growing season rather than a planting season. True, but only up to a point. A good question deserved a better answer.

And the answer to the question about how much time does it take to look after the balcony is quite a lot, and always more than I have. However, my hunch is that anyone interested in gardening will often include enough complexity, and be sufficiently susceptible to the allure of another plant or horticultural project, to ensure that there will always be something to to do to fill the time available. My next job is to plant the strawberry plants I have just been given and I do have a suitable container for them.

If you want to avoid slugs and snails roof-top gardening might be the thing to do. Occasional slugs do appear, presumably transported aloft with a newly acquired plant, and aphids are happy at high altitude, but generally speaking, the combination of hard surfaces, ladybirds and other predators and exposure to wind, rain and direct sunlight, deter many pests and diseases. Weeds seem to be absorbed in the general planting mix and the use of any measures to combat pests and diseases can generally be completely avoided unless you include squashing aphids, which is relatively straightforward.

However, oxalis is a lover of containers and enjoys a close association with plants in pots, noticeably my roses and olives. There are apparently over 800 species of oxalis, most being ornamental, but two or three of my largest containers are overrun with this pretty but persistent intruder and removing all remnants requires more patience and determination than I can muster.

Any tips would be very welcome.

Meanwhile response to the inclusion of poetry in my last post has been mixed – mostly in favour but some disappointment about the lack of horticultural content, which I can also understand. So if you want another suggestion, at this moment when late June has slipped by, with all this represents, you might try Edward Thomas’s poem Adelstrop’, written in 1914.

 

While up aloft the drying, damaging wind continues to fling the plants around and some of the thalictrum have lost their trailing tops, at the allotment, adjacent to a large nettle patch, a tortoiseshell butterfly appeared and happily lingered in the flower strip, oblivious to the winds above.

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  1. Dear Ann,
    Another great tribute of and to your balcony garden; and great photos too, so beautifully incorporated. So glad to know you are flourishing too (as are we so far)
    all the best and lots of love,
    Sally

    • Thank you very much for your comment – actually on the balcony things are flourishing rather excessively and reaching the bench now involves negotiating a very beautiful rose about to have a second flush, but nevertheless a nice problem to have.

  2. Considering your beautiful prose and images both physical and imaginary, it seems churlish to point out that tractors these days run on GPS etc so you would only need one man at the most.

    • I’m reliably informed that the answer is that it would take 16 and a quarter hours to plough the fields, so a tractor and GPS sounds an advance as long as the GPS signal was stable – I’m glad you liked the post and thank you for your comment.

Through all the Changing Scenes of Life

 

Here Comes the Wind

Yesterday the wind was back and after a while I was driven indoors by the fierce gusts blowing the dusty dry compost skywards and threatening the strategically placed, but flimsy garden parasol. An area of high pressure apparently came up against an area of low pressure, keeping the temperature up and the winds lively. Today the wind has relented.

It’s not always easy to be sure why a particular association comes to mind, but the solitude of gardening can be a good jumping off point. So it was that while watching the bumble bees flitting from flower to flower I remembered Henry Reed’s multi-layered poem ‘The Naming of Parts’. The poem, written in 1942, interposes lines recalling nature in Springtime with the voice of an army instructor, naming parts of a rifle – beauty and brutality.

….. ‘the early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers’ and we, here and now, have not only ‘got bumble bees going rapidly backwards and forwards’ but swallows, or more probably house martins, darting and dancing above. Improbably, actually, as we are close to a main route to the Surrey Hills, the traffic is beginning to build up again at peak times and we can at moments be nearer to the heavens and the aerial feeding birds, than the ground nesting bees.

However, it has quickly become obvious that the plants that were last in line when it came to watering before my retreat indoors, were the plants that suffered most, but in rather unexpected ways. One of my olives, unwatered for several days and with the foliage acting as a sail, had been spun round on its axis, losing leaves and damaging branches as each rotation involved a challenging encounter with the heavy railings that form the roof-top boundary. I’m expecting it to recover from this auto-pruning but a favourite clematis and, surprisingly perhaps, a container largely of often resilient salvias, but as dry as a bone, were cut off at compost level by the wind’s thrashing motion.

I have been delighted by the unheralded arrival of a wild lavatera or mallow, identified by a kind and  knowledgeable friend, and much favoured by the bumble bees. But having been overly pre-occupied with other gardening concerns, and evidently  insufficiently vigilant about the watering, I now obviously need to do better.

We are losing /have lost the enveloping protection and summer green of the vulnerable, elderly horse chestnut a few feet from the balcony.  Favoured by a wide variety of visiting birds, as well as the local grey squirrels, it now has to be removed. A leaf-mining moth might be partly to blame but a more immediate cause is likely to be  extensive tarmacing alongside the boundary fence, sealing off the tree’s water supply. This happened a couple of years ago when the neighbouring property, a school with limited outside space, understandably extended their usuable outdoor area. Sadly they did so without anybody noticing the risk to the nearby tree and including some alternative surface materials to channel rainwater towards the roots.

However, I read that water percolation is only one of the many hazards for mature trees growing close to buildings and surrounded by hard surfaces; tarmac can be permeable and it’s easy to be wise after the event.

A PiCUS test has nevertheless been done. PiCUS Sonic Tomography I now know is the arboreal equivalent of ultra sound, and the results are not good – the tree must be removed before Autumn gales replace the warming summer winds and it will leave a large gap.

Weathering the Weather

Thinking of wind and gardens invites thoughts of Dungeness and Prospect Cottage, another garden I’ve only enjoyed through magazine pictures and virtual images. Film director, diarist and gardener, Derek Jarman’s horticultural challenge had been to introduce beauty and life into an exposed, harsh, barren area of shingle in the shadow of the Dungeness nuclear power station.

I’m anticipating that the complete exposure of the balcony to the winter winds will alter the micro-climate in the area below the metal railings, which is in effect a miniature walled garden with a brick surround. More challenging might be the impact on the taller plants and shrubs, many of them like the olives, bay and rosemary having their ancestral roots in the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and their horticultural heads way above the parapet. My particular concern is actually for the younger of my two E Nicholii, a small narrow leaved eucalyptus, endemic in New South Wales. It was battered through the winter and is only just beginning to recover so I will move it to a small recess in the balcony as next Winter descends, in the hope of protecting it. An older tree, planted against a wall, although in a wind tunnel which catches the lashing winds from the North-East, seems more resilient and forgiving, recovers quickly from neglect or harsh treatment and is a truly beautiful specimen – as a container grown tree I strongly recommend it.

The jumbled planting of gaura, tall verbena bonariensis, lemon verbena now a metre high and mixed underplanting, interspersed with roses, is coming into being as a treasure trove for pollinators and a pretty (a word I usually avoid) display, although the compost is old and the planting scheme random.

However, the salvias look weary and may need replacing next year and I’m trying again with geums (Mai Tai to be precise), which I’ve admired from afar in other people’s gardens but never managed to grow successfully in pots. Too much competition I suspect may be part of the problem so I’m trying to offer them more growing space for now, but ultimately, like everything else, they will have to fend for themselves and try and manage with less.

Derek Jarman imbued hope and optimism into his gardening projects – I’ll take my cue from him.

Cottage Industry

The lockdown has, I know, been an opportunity for all sorts of creative initiatives. Mine are rather small scale and I am disproportionately proud of my efforts. A small table, a sheltered area on the balcony, a couple of sheets of bubble wrap and some clothes pegs and a roof-top mini greenhouse was born in the manner of Blue Peter.

The seeds came mail order just as the final design features were completed. All available containers were planted either with butternut squash or sweetcorn seeds, both of which are large and so in line with my previously admitted limitations as a propagator of small seeds.

Benefiting from the exceptionally warm weather, and occasional misting using a re-purposed hair-spray product bottle, promising volume boost and shine, the butternut squash seedlings did well, tolerated being ‘potted on’ and then were successfully transplanted to the sun-baked allotment where they are happily installed and will hopefully continue to thrive. Last year’s crop suffered from a rather underwhelming amount of Summer heat, and being on the shady side of  the sweet corn, which grew tall.

This year there have been lengthy discussions about the best planting lay-out for these late Summer crops, which need to be on the sunny side of the street with room to stretch out. Hopefully there will also be enough wind to get good pollination of the sweetcorn – not a complete success last year.

The flower strip is doing well with the first sweet peas in flower, and the battle against the mares tails (Hippuris vulgaris, not to be confused with horsetail) a score draw at the moment as regular hoeing and less frequent digging give at least an improved appearance although inevitably they will keep re-appearing until late Summer. The allotment is in walking distance of  the Thames which increases the odds in favour of the weed which likes mud flats apparently.

From Cradle to Grave – five stages of cistus

The reorganisation of the roof garden, in part to ensure better access for maintenance work (the last stage of essential leak repair work that loyal readers may remember has been something of a saga over recent months is due this week) also involved the pragmatic choice of replacing the two garden chairs with a bench.

Two occupied chairs with adult legs outstretched take up more surface area than one bench with two people sitting side by side, or so it seems. The straight backed bench can go right against the wall, under a canopy, facing out across the planting and long established trees to the church spire on the rise beyond. And more immediately is a perfect spot for sitting amongst the plants and watching what is going on.

Most eye-catching of all has been the spectacular display this year of the cistus purpureus, a particularly colourful rock-rose, with each individual flower a treat, the whole display spectacular and the Mediterranean plant, for once, enjoying Mediterranean temperatures, at least in the day-time. However, the end was inevitable as the shrub was elderly and straggly and ultimately could no longer support life. It had long outgrown its own life support system, a space limited terracotta pot, and as the last of the petals fell they seemingly replicated Millais’s depiction of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, with flowers floating on the water illustrating growth and decay.

Meanwhile the tallest of my Thalictrum plants is already as high as an elephant’s eye, and the ram-rod straight Verbena Bonariensis are too, and I will replace the cistus like for like whenever access to my local garden centre allows.

 

The Naming of Parts                                                The Death of Ophelia

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,                                       There is a willow grows askant the brook
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,                               That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,                              Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples,
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,                      That liberal shepherds give a grosser name
And today we have naming of parts.                                                     But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this                                                  There on pendant boughs her crownet weeds
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,                               Clambering to hang, and envious sliver broke,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,        When down her weedy trophies and herself
Which in your case you have not got. The branches                           Fellin the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,                           And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which in our case we have not got.                                                        Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds

This is the safety-catch, which is always released                              As one incapable of her own distress,
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me                Or like a creature native and endued
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy                        Unto that element. But long it could not be
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms                    Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see                        Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
Any of them using their finger.                                                               To muddy death.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this                               Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7.
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this                                         
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

 

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  1. The mallow knew what colour it needed to be to avoid being whipped out.
    I love the addition of poems on the blog.

    • I’m glad you like the poems – but unfortunately for anyone reading the blog on a smart phone the two texts have become interwoven. Actually rather beautiful and well worth a glance but not quite what I had intended.

      I also missed out the fourth line in the first verse of ‘Naming of Parts’…….

      The poems seem to be popular but I’ve also had a plea for more about the plants themselves and less poetry.

Earthly Delights

 

A Cultivated Space

I’m surrounded by beautiful blossom, most spectacularly a wonderful Judas tree (less  memorably but more correctly known as Cercis siliquastrum) a lilac and a young apple with fading cherries, in various pinks, not far away. Perhaps just past their peak in this southerly spot, but the puffs of blossom have been a delight, both walking through the surrounding garden and on my weekly trips for essential shopping. However, most of the drama takes place down below. Looking straight out from my rooftop domain the only pink to be seen is in the blurry middle distance, all of which is a seasonal treat but nothing to compare with the display of Taihaku cherry blossom at Alnwick Castle. https://www.alnwickgarden.com/the-garden/cherry-blossom/

I’ve never been.

Once upon a time I tried introducing blossom on the balcony. My prunus Kojo-no-mai didn’t live up to its reputation, courtesy of the RHS, of being ‘perfect for pots’, and was finally drowned by last year’s ‘Beast from the East’, while blue berries without enough cross pollination (self pollinators don’t always do what it says on the tin) and a fruiting cherry, which grew too big for the balcony, and is now happily installed on the allotment, were also part of the failed project.

So instead I enjoy what’s round about and wait impatiently for the earliest summer colour to arrive. The scabious, scabiosa columbaria ‘Flutter Rose Pink’  http://retiringgardener.uk/2020/04/14/a-city-stilled/ to be more exact, forming the advance party.

But there are moments, and this is one, when this comfortable high level living, with the inevitable lurch from Spring to Summer (as container gardening doesn’t always manage easy, slow paced transitions from one season to another) doesn’t feel enough.

Cow parsley billowing in the hedgerows is what I yearn for but will be gone before I next cross the M25. Full of the promise of languid days, surrounded by soft and subtly different greens, accompanied by bird-song, this is where my urban soul meets the natural world most readily.

Meanwhile there are other opportunities to think about what it means to be human and our relationship with the natural world; this might be one worth exploring:

To register please email Stella Lyons at

stella_grace_lyons@hotmail.com

https://stellagracelyons.com/

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  1. Alnwick looks wonderful–we were planning to go there this summer, but that is looking unlikely now.
    Vernon and I love Stella Lyons’ lectures and look forward to them. I remember her father Robin–who wouldn’t?
    Our apple tree is covered in blossom. I hope that means lots of tasty apples later (russets). Sonia

A City Stilled

 

Into the fourth week of a lockdown, which in this city edge neighbourhood is apparently well observed: the restaurants are shut, the supermarket queues spaced out and the local garden centre closed, although occasionally a figure is seen wandering through the plants, tending and watering and hopefully keeping this fraction of the nation’s much needed plant stock alive and ready for sale when the time comes.

I am firmly on the side of re-opening nurseries and garden centres. The plants are needed for people and pollinators and I miss wandering and dreaming as I go through the seasonal displays.

Meanwhile the main ‘A’ road taking traffic from this South London borough into Surrey and beyond is largely silent, except for infrequent penetrating interruptions as emergency vehicles and boy racers on motor bikes screech past, accelerating through the empty streets.

A Less Familiar World

The roof garden sits at tree-top height, atop a former county secondary school,  surrounded by lime trees and elderly horse chestnuts that gradually screen out far-away landmarks with the leaf canopy thickening as Spring becomes Summer.

Built in the Edwardian era, in the characteristic red brick of the period with some impressive ornamental stone features, the school opened in 1907. However, the original top storey was set ablaze by an incendiary bomb during the second world war, so schooling in the building was then suspended and the girls educated for a while elsewhere, going to different sites for different classes – joining the local boys’ school for science lessons and going separately to the nearby College of Art for art lessons. After a chequered post-war existence the building was later converted into apartments surrounded by a fragment of the original extensive school grounds and now with an industrial flat roof, all of which would presumably have come as a surprise to the original architects.

Lockdown in a flat with its own outdoor space and access to an allotment is indeed to be fortunate. Nevertheless there are complicated routines to be observed at the allotment site regarding locks and water taps (and the washing of hands) but reminders to observe social distancing requirements are largely unneccesary as self-isolating tends to be the order of the day.

The balconies on the other hand, while never being part of the original designs for the building, now offer a treasured opportunity to chat to neighbours across the dividing space, to ‘Clap for Carers’ on Thursday evenings or raise a glass as the sun goes down.

 

If you are interested in architecture and artists of the early twentieth century you might like to register for this talk by Stella Grace Lyons, one in her series of Stella Talks:

Charles Rennie Mackintosh – more than just a tea room!

Did you know that when Charles Rennie Mackintosh died, his entire estate was valued at just £88. Glaswegian-born Mackintosh, a designer, architect and artist, was the foremost Celtic exponent of Art Nouveau, and had a considerable influence on European art. But he is an even more enigmatic figure today than when he was alive. Both Mackintosh’s and his wife Margaret Macdonald’s work has a distinctive character, one that captures the transition between the Victorian era and the modern age. This talk will consider both Charles and Margaret’s life, work and legacy.

When? Friday 17th April, 11.0am (UK time)        Where? Online, via Zoom

Cost: £7.50 paid via Zoom (using PayPal)  Duration: 30 mins followed by a Q&A session

Speaker: Art Historian  Stella Grace Lyons  http://www.stellagracelyons.com

How do I register? Here’s the Zoom link to register for the Mackintosh talk: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_p16Kk8sXQ85E24nAXjkdJg

 

Revised Expectations

I’m always wary of giving gardening advice as it seems presumptious because, as I’ve mentioned before, I tend to know very little about quite a lot rather than having a real depth of knowledge about anything horticultural.

But I’m happy to pass on tips based on my experience. So

  • if you want early Spring interest, and you garden in containers, hellebores are highly recommended. They please the bees, come in a wide variety of colours and forms and are exceptionally long lasting. An added bonus is that during their dormant season, while the rest of the balcony, patio or whereever you garden, is coming into bloom, the containers can be tucked out of the way in shady spots until their time comes round again. Their success aloft is rather a surprise as these plants have a preference for shady woodland, very different from the exposed windy conditions of my sunny south facing balcony.

Unfortunately my beautiful hellebores are currently eleven miles away, lodging with a family member who has grown fond of them. A temporary expedient to manage the urgent need for access to the balcony, when rainwater was flooding the flat below, has become more permanent, with the current restrictions on travel and associating with others.

Tempting as it is to consider all my plants and containers as ‘essential’, I have plenty, many of which like me, have been enjoying the warmth of the recent settled sunny days. Indeed lingering on the balcony with secateurs or hose in hand has been a pleasure and everything is beginning to look particularly neat. Not a horticultural look I generally seek and the pleasure is somewhat surreal.

Meanwhile my heart goes out to gardeners who can’t be in their gardens, city families with no nearby outdoor space and the plant growers whose livelihoods are currently under threat.

  • compost is a very scarce commodity at the moment (as are many other gardening essentials including seeds and plants, plant food, grit and horticultural sand…… I could go on) so best to use what you have for perennials and other plants destined for a long stay and consider using old ‘spent’ compost for planting seeds if you having got anything more specific. The elderly ‘mangetout’ seeds that I recently planted in a couple of seed trays using some long abandoned compost (which I had been using as ballast at the bottom of a large container while waiting for a new climber and some more nutricious compost to turn up) has provided quite an effective growing medium. However, late in the day I have learnt that pea seedlings are averse to root disturbance so it was probably a mistake to plant them two at a time. I think the answer might be to work round the problem and nip the top off the weakest seedlings rather than pulling them apart.

I’m far too idle to grow things from seed (and of course the lack of a greenhouse is a perfect excuse, although there is the odd sheltered corner on the balcony) unless in child-like fashion the seeds are encouragingly large – peas being one such, nasturtiums another. I have been known to look at seed catelogues rather as I look as recipes, searching for the largest seeds or fewest ingredients, but now, at this moment in time, and against the backdrop of so much loss and uncertainty it is heartening indeed to see the peas sprouting and signs of renewal.

I’m also put to shame by Sue who pointed out in her comment on my last post http://retiringgardener.uk/ that because of the difficulty of finding thalictrum to buy, she would be growing them from seed. I am full of admiration and curiosity – my new plants (ordered early and safely arriving through the post) are growing apace so this evidence of a certain robustness might apply to the seeds too. It will be interesting to hear more.

  • try to resist the temptation to discard any plant that lacks promise prematurely, particularly at the moment as acquiring replacements may be problematic for some while to come. Having once admired a friend’s shoulder high lemon verbena plant, admittedly growing in a pretty, sheltered courtyard garden, I now always preserve the plants I have left in the Autumn, rather than uprooting them. They may or may not fare well, but if one or two do steal a march on the new season’s additions, it’s an ornamental reward with the added bonus of early leaves to use for herbal teas.

Last season’s lemon verbena plants should be cut back by a third (or was it cut to a third) in the Spring and in time green shoots will appear. It pays to be optimistic, certainly at this latitude, as they generally do appear, although winter damage may mean that the plant is never a complete success.

A Closely Observed Balcony

The scabious have been out for weeks but the few tulips I have this year are holding back – true they are a late flowering variety but I’d quite like my container back and I’m now wishing I’d gone for an earlier flowering variety as the short sleeved sunny weather, with tulips still in tight bud, seem a rather curious combination. I’m also regretting buying tulips with variegated leaves which I don’t think I really like in this space-compromised spot. The strongly marked, white edged leaves of China Town, a pretty pink tulip when it eventually arrives, are overly prominent and eye catching and distracting, so a somewhat disappointing experiment.

The much admired and ever larger rosemary is losing its flowers, which is a shame as the bees are out and about and with my best hellebores miles away I haven’t got much else on offer for the moment, although the ‘Cornish daises’, with the unmemorable name of Erigeron karvinskianus are coming in to flower.

So too are the smallest, daintiest of the thulbaghia, another plant with ‘wafty’ lavender pink flowers. I have three varieties, the largest being Thulbaghia Violacea. They are generally tough and as long as you water them and feed them, but not too much, they will flower right up to Christmas. However, I may have pushed my luck with the Violacea. The pot and plant were bound together and the clump urgently needed dividing so having borrowed a spade from the allotment, with a struggle what was once whole was divided into quarters, with two small clumps re-potted. This may be a misnomer as I had miscalculated and didn’t have nearly enough compost of any quality to cover the roots. So I have an inadequate arrangement with the limited supply of compost mounded up in the centre of the two large containers, more or less covering the roots, which I water daily, with a large gap round the margin of the pot waiting to be filled with compost – a doughnut in reverse.

There are things to be said for gardening and living at a slower pace, but impatience, as I’ve discovered, can problematically fill a vacuum.

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to the blowsier plants of summer. The Lysimachia atropurpurea have already doubled in size and are looking promising among some elderly salvias which needed a bit of cheering up. The roses are looking healthy and contrary to the concerns about growing in pots continue to accept their relatively cramped conditions and are emerging shiny leaved and ready to flower, while honeysuckle and clematii are almost ready to burst into flower, prompted by the recent warm weather.

All of which is in marked contrast to the agonies being endured, and the heroic efforts being made, elsewhere across this quiet city.

 

Thank you for all your messages and comments.

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  1. Pea shoots are very tasty.
    Thanks to this blog I grew lemon verbena again last year after a very long gap and they now look like dry twigs. This bulletin has arrived just in time. Instead of pulling them up I ran my nail down a bit of the bark and there is green underneath. So many thanks for that.

  2. It has been a tonic to read your blog while under ‘house arrest’ in New Zealand, unable to get home to our Spring garden. We hope we will be back in time for ‘summer’ in the West of Scotland so meantime enjoy your lovely horticultural tips. Thank you. Maureen

    • Thank you for your encouraging comments.

      Meanwhile I’m sorry to hear that you and your garden are impossibly far apart at the moment (which puts the distance between me and my Hellebores into the shade) and mention of New Zealand, a country I’ve never visited, makes me wonder what plants and shrubs might still be in flower, or is everything tipping into Autumn?