Troubling Times

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Storm Eunice

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

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

Pottering On

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

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

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

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

Say it with Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Haste

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

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

Luckily a green-fingered granddaughter took things in hand.

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

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

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

 

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

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

Intimations of Spring

 

Window Shopping

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

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

So I wonder if a pomegranate might too?

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

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

Truth and Illusion

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

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

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

Taking Stock

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

Nevertheless the risk of overcrowding is always close at hand.

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

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

First Loves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Shopping List

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants and Plans

 

A Plot with a View

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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A Chance Remark

 

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

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

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

Aiming High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mellow Yellow

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

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

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

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

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

The National Garden Scheme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So an enviably different scale from my small roof terrace and different again from the scale of the planetary system which governs the Winter solstice, and which if interested can be explored in greater detail by surfing the internet at https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=the+winter+solstice+2021&sxsrf=AOaemvIA5zPK6KsSB795_lMCg1BNzUxodw%3A1640260873020&source=hp&ei=CGXEYcvtO4Sx8gK6rZzoBw&iflsig=ALs-wAMAAAAAYcRzGaNUuvxScdySxCHPJo8Y_TFm815z&oq=the+winter+solstice+2021&gs_lcp=Cgdnd3Mtd2l6EAEYADIFCAAQgAQyBggAEBYQHjIGCAAQFhAeMgYIABAWEB46BwgjEOoCECc6DQguEMcBEK8BEOoCECc6BAgjECc6CwgAEIAEELEDEIMBOhEILhCABBCxAxCDARDHARCjAjoLCC4QgAQQsQMQgwE6DgguEIAEELEDEMcBENEDOhEILhCABBCxAxCDARDHARDRAzoLCC4QgAQQxwEQ0QM6DgguEIAEELEDEMcBEKMCOggILhCxAxCDAToKCC4QxwEQrwEQJzoLCC4QgAQQxwEQrwE6CAguEIAEELEDOggIABCxAxCDAToQCC4QgAQQhwIQxwEQrwEQFDoICAAQgAQQsQM6BQguEIAEOgoILhCABBCHAhAUOhAIABCABBCxAxCDARBGEIECUK0NWL9XYLFzaAFwAHgAgAGqA4gBpxqSAQoxMS44LjMuMS4xmAEAoAEBsAEK&sclient=gws-wiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer’s End

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvest Feast

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

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

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

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

Late Arrivals

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

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

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

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

Some Reflections on Gardening Aloft

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

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

And Finally

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

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

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

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Dust to Dust

From the Big Bang to the Back Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do the Bumble Bees Cross the Bedroom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything’s Coming up Roses

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening Notes

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Greening Up

 

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

It’s hard to predict the future.

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

Gardens are Made by Sitting in the Shade to misquote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a study cited in her book ‘The Art of Rest’ Claudia Hammond, broadcaster and presenter of  Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’, 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.