I’m surrounded by beautiful blossom, most spectacularly a wonderful Judas tree (less memorably but more correctly known as Cercis siliquastrum) a lilac and a young apple with fading cherries, in various pinks, not far away. Perhaps just past their peak in this southerly spot, but the puffs of blossom have been a delight, both walking through the surrounding garden and on my weekly trips for essential shopping. However, most of the drama takes place down below. Looking straight out from my rooftop domain the only pink to be seen is in the blurry middle distance, all of which is a seasonal treat but nothing to compare with the display of Taihaku cherry blossom at Alnwick Castle. https://www.alnwickgarden.com/the-garden/cherry-blossom/
I’ve never been.
Once upon a time I tried introducing blossom on the balcony. My prunus Kojo-no-mai didn’t live up to its reputation, courtesy of the RHS, of being ‘perfect for pots’, and was finally drowned by last year’s ‘Beast from the East’, while blue berries without enough cross pollination (self pollinators don’t always do what it says on the tin) and a fruiting cherry, which grew too big for the balcony, and is now happily installed on the allotment, were also part of the failed project.
But there are moments, and this is one, when this comfortable high level living, with the inevitable lurch from Spring to Summer (as container gardening doesn’t always manage easy, slow paced transitions from one season to another) doesn’t feel enough.
Cow parsley billowing in the hedgerows is what I yearn for but will be gone before I next cross the M25. Full of the promise of languid days, surrounded by soft and subtly different greens, accompanied by bird-song, this is where my urban soul meets the natural world most readily.
Meanwhile there are other opportunities to think about what it means to be human and our relationship with the natural world; this might be one worth exploring:
Into the fourth week of a lockdown, which in this city edge neighbourhood is apparently well observed: the restaurants are shut, the supermarket queues spaced out and the local garden centre closed, although occasionally a figure is seen wandering through the plants, tending and watering and hopefully keeping this fraction of the nation’s much needed plant stock alive and ready for sale when the time comes.
I am firmly on the side of re-opening nurseries and garden centres. The plants are needed for people and pollinators and I miss wandering and dreaming as I go through the seasonal displays.
Meanwhile the main ‘A’ road taking traffic from this South London borough into Surrey and beyond is largely silent, except for infrequent penetrating interruptions as emergency vehicles and boy racers on motor bikes screech past, accelerating through the empty streets.
A Less Familiar World
The roof garden sits at tree-top height, atop a former county secondary school, surrounded by lime trees and elderly horse chestnuts that gradually screen out far-away landmarks with the leaf canopy thickening as Spring becomes Summer.
Built in the Edwardian era, in the characteristic red brick of the period with some impressive ornamental stone features, the school opened in 1907. However, the original top storey was set ablaze by an incendiary bomb during the second world war, so schooling in the building was then suspended and the girls educated for a while elsewhere, going to different sites for different classes – joining the local boys’ school for science lessons and going separately to the nearby College of Art for art lessons. After a chequered post-war existence the building was later converted into apartments surrounded by a fragment of the original extensive school grounds and now with an industrial flat roof, all of which would presumably have come as a surprise to the original architects.
Lockdown in a flat with its own outdoor space and access to an allotment is indeed to be fortunate. Nevertheless there are complicated routines to be observed at the allotment site regarding locks and water taps (and the washing of hands) but reminders to observe social distancing requirements are largely unneccesary as self-isolating tends to be the order of the day.
The balconies on the other hand, while never being part of the original designs for the building, now offer a treasured opportunity to chat to neighbours across the dividing space, to ‘Clap for Carers’ on Thursday evenings or raise a glass as the sun goes down.
If you are interested in architecture and artists of the early twentieth century you might like to register for this talk by Stella Grace Lyons, one in her series of Stella Talks:
Charles Rennie Mackintosh – more than just a tea room!
Did you know that when Charles Rennie Mackintosh died, his entire estate was valued at just £88. Glaswegian-born Mackintosh, a designer, architect and artist, was the foremost Celtic exponent of Art Nouveau, and had a considerable influence on European art. But he is an even more enigmatic figure today than when he was alive. Both Mackintosh’s and his wife Margaret Macdonald’s work has a distinctive character, one that captures the transition between the Victorian era and the modern age. This talk will consider both Charles and Margaret’s life, work and legacy.
When? Friday 17th April, 11.0am (UK time) Where? Online, via Zoom
Cost: £7.50 paid via Zoom (using PayPal) Duration: 30 mins followed by a Q&A session
I’m always wary of giving gardening advice as it seems presumptious because, as I’ve mentioned before, I tend to know very little about quite a lot rather than having a real depth of knowledge about anything horticultural.
But I’m happy to pass on tips based on my experience. So
if you want early Spring interest, and you garden in containers, hellebores are highly recommended. They please the bees, come in a wide variety of colours and forms and are exceptionally long lasting. An added bonus is that during their dormant season, while the rest of the balcony, patio or whereever you garden, is coming into bloom, the containers can be tucked out of the way in shady spots until their time comes round again. Their success aloft is rather a surprise as these plants have a preference for shady woodland, very different from the exposed windy conditions of my sunny south facing balcony.
Unfortunately my beautiful hellebores are currently eleven miles away, lodging with a family member who has grown fond of them. A temporary expedient to manage the urgent need for access to the balcony, when rainwater was flooding the flat below, has become more permanent, with the current restrictions on travel and associating with others.
Tempting as it is to consider all my plants and containers as ‘essential’, I have plenty, many of which like me, have been enjoying the warmth of the recent settled sunny days. Indeed lingering on the balcony with secateurs or hose in hand has been a pleasure and everything is beginning to look particularly neat. Not a horticultural look I generally seek and the pleasure is somewhat surreal.
Meanwhile my heart goes out to gardeners who can’t be in their gardens, city families with no nearby outdoor space and the plant growers whose livelihoods are currently under threat.
compost is a very scarce commodity at the moment (as are many other gardening essentials including seeds and plants, plant food, grit and horticultural sand…… I could go on) so best to use what you have for perennials and other plants destined for a long stay and consider using old ‘spent’ compost for planting seeds if you having got anything more specific. The elderly ‘mangetout’ seeds that I recently planted in a couple of seed trays using some long abandoned compost (which I had been using as ballast at the bottom of a large container while waiting for a new climber and some more nutricious compost to turn up) has provided quite an effective growing medium. However, late in the day I have learnt that pea seedlings are averse to root disturbance so it was probably a mistake to plant them two at a time. I think the answer might be to work round the problem and nip the top off the weakest seedlings rather than pulling them apart.
I’m far too idle to grow things from seed (and of course the lack of a greenhouse is a perfect excuse, although there is the odd sheltered corner on the balcony) unless in child-like fashion the seeds are encouragingly large – peas being one such, nasturtiums another. I have been known to look at seed catelogues rather as I look as recipes, searching for the largest seeds or fewest ingredients, but now, at this moment in time, and against the backdrop of so much loss and uncertainty it is heartening indeed to see the peas sprouting and signs of renewal.
I’m also put to shame by Sue who pointed out in her comment on my last post http://retiringgardener.uk/ that because of the difficulty of finding thalictrum to buy, she would be growing them from seed. I am full of admiration and curiosity – my new plants (ordered early and safely arriving through the post) are growing apace so this evidence of a certain robustness might apply to the seeds too. It will be interesting to hear more.
try to resist the temptation to discard any plant that lacks promise prematurely, particularly at the moment as acquiring replacements may be problematic for some while to come. Having once admired a friend’s shoulder high lemon verbena plant, admittedly growing in a pretty, sheltered courtyard garden, I now always preserve the plants I have left in the Autumn, rather than uprooting them. They may or may not fare well, but if one or two do steal a march on the new season’s additions, it’s an ornamental reward with the added bonus of early leaves to use for herbal teas.
Last season’s lemon verbena plants should be cut back by a third (or was it cut to a third) in the Spring and in time green shoots will appear. It pays to be optimistic, certainly at this latitude, as they generally do appear, although winter damage may mean that the plant is never a complete success.
A Closely Observed Balcony
The scabious have been out for weeks but the few tulips I have this year are holding back – true they are a late flowering variety but I’d quite like my container back and I’m now wishing I’d gone for an earlier flowering variety as the short sleeved sunny weather, with tulips still in tight bud, seem a rather curious combination. I’m also regretting buying tulips with variegated leaves which I don’t think I really like in this space-compromised spot. The strongly marked, white edged leaves of China Town, a pretty pink tulip when it eventually arrives, are overly prominent and eye catching and distracting, so a somewhat disappointing experiment.
The much admired and ever larger rosemary is losing its flowers, which is a shame as the bees are out and about and with my best hellebores miles away I haven’t got much else on offer for the moment, although the ‘Cornish daises’, with the unmemorable name of Erigeron karvinskianus are coming in to flower.
So too are the smallest, daintiest of the thulbaghia, another plant with ‘wafty’ lavender pink flowers. I have three varieties, the largest being Thulbaghia Violacea. They are generally tough and as long as you water them and feed them, but not too much, they will flower right up to Christmas. However, I may have pushed my luck with the Violacea. The pot and plant were bound together and the clump urgently needed dividing so having borrowed a spade from the allotment, with a struggle what was once whole was divided into quarters, with two small clumps re-potted. This may be a misnomer as I had miscalculated and didn’t have nearly enough compost of any quality to cover the roots. So I have an inadequate arrangement with the limited supply of compost mounded up in the centre of the two large containers, more or less covering the roots, which I water daily, with a large gap round the margin of the pot waiting to be filled with compost – a doughnut in reverse.
There are things to be said for gardening and living at a slower pace, but impatience, as I’ve discovered, can problematically fill a vacuum.
Meanwhile I’m looking forward to the blowsier plants of summer. The Lysimachia atropurpurea have already doubled in size and are looking promising among some elderly salvias which needed a bit of cheering up. The roses are looking healthy and contrary to the concerns about growing in pots continue to accept their relatively cramped conditions and are emerging shiny leaved and ready to flower, while honeysuckle and clematii are almost ready to burst into flower, prompted by the recent warm weather.
All of which is in marked contrast to the agonies being endured, and the heroic efforts being made, elsewhere across this quiet city.
The annual drumbeat of greater spotted woodpeckers advertising their presence and excavating the ancient, and arguably dying, horse chestnuts facing the balcony, began early and has continued through the morning. The search for insects and other food prompts this regular migration from the densely wooded areas not far away to the gardens and trees round about. This species is described as having ‘a huge range and large population with no widespread threats, so it is classed as a species of least concern’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
If only the same could be said of Covid-19, that like the woodpeckers evidently now has a huge range and no widespread threats, and is increasingly a very great and grave concern, which one way or another is beginning to affect us all. I feel fortunate to have a green space of my own, and the balcony I’m sure will be a place of refuge in the weeks ahead, while familiar certainties, and time with friends and family, are for the moment suspended.
Spring days, and longed for long hot summers, are also for me a poignant reminder of the passing of time, accompanied by an aching sense of sadness and loss, alongside the joys and delights of warm evenings, summer scents and happy times. This year, or so it seems at the moment, I will have the time and opportunity to take care of the pots and plants while reflecting on these alarming times with escalating measures to manage and ameliorate the health and financial consequences of the coronavirus. Meanwhile we learn that as the virus spreads, and traffic stills, air pollutants and CO2 levels both show a significant drop.
Time Moves On
At the height of the recent, but now rather forgotten storms, our neighbours left London and left me the pick of their plants to add to my collection. Another olive tree, and a particularly nicely shaped dark purple-bronze pittosporum, were the first to make the short journey from one balcony to another where two of the four ball topped steel stakes I recently acquired are ready to lend support.
Generosity takes many forms but at this time of year I am indebted to the person I share my life with. The main terrace leads directly off the main bedroom which sounds much grander than it is, but in the absence of a shed, side paths or whatever to store pots, bags of compost, grit etc, which I’ve been amassing for the planting season ahead, the bedroom has to act as an antechamber and temporarily or more permanently houses things heading for the terrace.
Currently it is mostly a question of bags of crocks, but recently included bags of horticultural grit which I left too long on the carpet and they leaked. At other times the horticultural smells of compost have mingled with the rather more synthetic smells of shower gel and shampoo from the en-suite.
All this is tolerated without a murmur.
Meanwhile on the allotment, the plan had been to make space for a ‘shed made of glass’ for the visiting nine year old who hadn’t come across the word greenhouse, but is nevertheless very keen on growing from seed, and is developing into a knowledgeable and enthusiastic gardener. In the past he has wondered why the family plot doesn’t make the ecological contribution, as well as offer the enchantments, of its own wildlife pond, and more recently raised the question of emulating the neighbouring plot and getting a greenhouse. It is unlikely to produce the wonderful crops of tomatoes that he’s been hoping for, as tending the allotment generally has to fit in with other demands and pleasures, so is inclined to the erratic at key moments in the summer (watering in August comes to mind) which is never a plus when growing veg. In the interests of health and safety the intention has been to look for polycarbonate ‘glazing’, but a shed made of polycarbonate is a bit of a mouthful so we’ll probably carry on referring to glass.
All this is of course on hold while family generations need to keep apart.
A Little Learning
My conversational French can give the impression that I am much more fluent than I am. So too with gardening – my enthusiasm can be mistaken for learning by those knowing less than me. However, being faced with questions or conversations which expose the fragility of my gardening knowledge does not necessarily stop me making suggestions or giving advice, perhaps not amounting to ‘a very dangerous thing’ but probably unwise and maybe unhelpful.
This tendency to fill the gap came close to being my undoing many years ago, when applying for a university course involved filling in an UCCA form, a forerunner of the current system. A surprisingly large amount of space was given to hobbies and interests, but describing my general interest in the theatre and visual arts (based in truth and demonstrating, I hoped, a certain well-roundedness since I was applying for a science course) only filled half the space, although looking back I’m sure I could have expanded on my descriptions of some of the wonderful theatre productions I’d been lucky enough to see, and the impact they had had; Vanessa Redgrave in ‘As You Like It‘ being at the top of the list.
Instead I resorted to being somewhat economical with the truth, and chose to expand my recently acquired skills in the art of fencing into an account which suggested more talent and skill, as well as success, than I could justify. One of my interviewers turned out to be a keen fencer and was involved in organising fencing competitions for schools and young people. Enough said.
Gardening is one of the few occupations which can keep, more or less, to a familiar, ordinary, tried and tested time-table in these extremely testing times – and at this time of year, as early summer flowers emerge, seeds need planting, shrubs need tidying, plants need feeding and designs need planning. The latter being a particular favourite of mine although as yet I’ve never managed to bring into reality the scheme in my imagination, largely because I am always swayed by what is in front of me (in a nursery or garden centre) so go for the spontaneous purchase, or am undone by a significant gap in my horticultural knowledge and so plant the wrong plant in the wrong place.
It is sunny now after an exceptionally wet and windy Winter and early Spring, with ominous grey clouds never far away, although with alluring intervals of sunshine and blue skies more recently that for now are seemingly settled. So having spent seemingly weeks trying to avoid the cold and rain by sheltering indoors (now of course largely confined for other reasons) I have been scheming and shopping, both on-line and at nearby garden centres too, while trying to restrain the temptation to order more than I have space for. Largely going for familiar plants that seem to be happy with high-rise living I’ve also avoided too many ‘pops of colour’, never something I’ve mastered in this limited space, or to be honest, elsewhere.
However, this annual ritual, buying seeds and plants, clearing away Winter debris, re-discovering the garden (or in my case forgotten pots) feels very different this year as the daily pre-occupations of the required restrictions, with the accompanying toll on well-being and livelihoods, dominate the scene. Local garden centres are for the moment open for people to shop one by one, and if this continues I will consider myself lucky indeed if I’m amongst those who know someone who is able to get some supplies which I can make use of, and enjoy, in the absence of family and friends.
With no opportunity, even under ideal circumstances, for expansive drifts of planting, unlike the generous acres of Jimi Blake’s garden, south west of Dublin, which as yet I have only seen in snapshots through the TV lens, his planting remains to me ‘such stuff as dreams are made on‘.
Visiting Hunting Brook Gardenshttp://www.huntingbrook.com/ is on my wish-list although like so much else will have to be deferred until travel plans can be resumed again. Meanwhile as a nod to the countless Thalictrum plants that have been, and may still be found in his gardens (although I’ve read that Jimi Blake, who comes across as a restless spirit, changes his planting plans whenever he feels inclined), and are a feature of Hunting Brook, I’ve gone for broke and ordered a few. The original plants suffered badly in last year’s emergency balcony clearance, after a wonderful summer when they scaled great heights. The replacements will be particularly appreciated if they ever arrive, and if not, another time.
Lorries may be requisitioned for other uses and in the current emergency, flowering plants might understandably be considered decorative rather than essential supplies, although the plight of pollinators could be considered a greater, or certainly longer term, emergency.
The school playground next door has been silent except for a few children playing table-tennis and kicking a ball to and fro outside for a while, presumably the sons (no daughters today) of our local key workers.
And the familiar queue of aeroplanes overhead has gone for now.
Meanwhile, since January we have been eating purple sprouting broccoli from the allotment – a bumper crop which is still in production but I had begun to grow weary of. However, it now seems fortunate indeed to have had a freshly grown crop which we can enjoy and leave on the doorstop of one or two close friends and family as we pass by.
If anyone has a comment or experience that they would like to feed-back or share with others please use the comments section below
I can’t remember when Venn diagrams first came into my life but in my mind they are closely associated with flip charts, felt tip marker pens and a degree of anxiety – attending conferences on topics I knew I should have been more committed to, in break out rooms with people I had never met (with the requirement that I should be able to strike up immediate and creative working relations) and in buildings that always underestimated the number of women needing to use the loos.
We are indebted to John Venn, who in 1880, in a paper entitled ‘On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings’ introduced ‘Venn’ diagrams, which he referred to as ‘Eulerian Circles’ based on earlier work in this field. As with many other subjects my understanding of the underlying principles is limited to the superficial and fleeting, and indeed the Wikipedia entry says the introduction of their article is ‘too technical for most’, so I am not alone, but the visual representation of three overlapping circles, which have migrated over the centuries from the domain of philosophy to much wider usage, and the focus on the area where all the three circles do overlap, is actually, and perhaps surprisingly, one I frequently have in my mind’s eye. Reasoned choices I suppose always involve assembling information, but I just happen to like the notion of this diagrammatic aid that I was first became conscious of in a bygone age.
Japanese Cherry (Kojo-No-Mai) Couldn’t tolerate exposure to heavy winter rains
I have also been musing on the much loved shrubs and other plants that have been and gone during my tenure aloft. These include a beautiful Japanese cherry tree which became water-logged after a sustained rainy period, and never recovered, a particularly bee friendly bluebeard (Caryopteris) which inevitably grew too big and spent too much of the year looking twiggy (but I might re-introduce as a late Summer treat for both me and the bees) and a blueberry which struggled. Thinking back has reminded me to ask those of all ages in charge of the family allotment to plant a pair of blueberries to assist pollination, in pots of ericaceous compost, for the delight of birds and others and I will enjoy the early blossum, Summer fruit and Autumn leaf colour as I wander by.
Caryopteris ‘Sterling Silver’ Truly a magnet for bees, but too big.
So back to gardening, and sustainable planting options, as I begin to plan ahead. This has to be a project confined for the moment to the main terrace, as the narrower walkways, that need more structural work to ensure no further leaks to the property below, are still out of bounds pending further work. But no matter, I am reconciled to the delay, have more or less got over my disappointment that coming home, or welcoming visitors, relies on houseplants for greenery until reaching the terrace, and I have negotiated the acquisition of a new bench which will take up less room than the original garden chairs since space is still a key consideration in this exposed roof terrace.
Edible Blueberry which on lts own was only briefly rewarding. It needed a partner.
Having done an audit in a brief moment recently, when the wild weather gave way to chilly still air and the balcony was basking under the Winter sun, I had confirmation that several plants had taken advantage of the wet, warm Winter and gone for growth. So running with this theme I am anticipating fewer containers this year, (in my hay day I had well over seventy) with larger plants giving a greater sense of scale and more effective wind protection as well as seasonal interest, while reducing the trip hazard that multiple smaller pots offer. And I can see that with thought and attention to detail I can build on what I’ve got and create a rather lovely display, both to look out at and sit amongst, that will satisfy the three essential conditions of being wildlife friendly all year, able to tolerate the winds and weather year on year and form a tapestry of colours and textures that can be tweaked and developed but retain charm and interest, including more scent, as well as food and shelter for visiting birds and bees.
This rather grandiose plan will involve a certain amount of self-denial – a beautiful hydrangea such as hydrangea aspera Villosa, with eye-catching saucer shaped purple flowers, that would need vastly more space than I can provide, and has a short flowering season but looks very tempting, won’t make the list. On the other hand relinquishing my Abelia ‘Edouard Goucher’ because it doesn’t meet the selection criteria, and I have never grown fond of it, will come as something on a relief. On completely unreasonable grounds I have never warmed to this long flowering, tolerant shrub, although on the balcony as elsewhere in the southern reaches of the District Line, it grows like topsy, providing flowers for months on end. Instead I’m hoping that by buying one or two additional small eucalyptus trees which can huddle together in moveable containers (more pot movers being on the shopping list) they will be an effective wind break and like my Eucalpytus Nicholii exude fragrant oil as you brush past on hot, sunny days.
I wonder too if reducing the overall number of pots and plants will offer enough opportunity to garden, to fiddle about with, to nurture inbetween waiting for the potatoes to boil and supper to be ready? I’m not sure, and there’s a nagging anxiety that the overall endeavour will veer too far in the direction of good taste.
Meanwhile I’m feeling the effects of no ‘hands-on’ gardening over recent months as the works to prevent water penetration are now imminent but not yet completed, and the Winter aloft has been particularly windy and wet, neither of which I enjoy unless in the midst of a horticultural project which demands complete attention – lugging pots and compost around comes to mind. Surprisingly the absence of any opportunity to do any gardening has temporarily diminished, rather than increased my interest in gardens and gardening, which presumably is an attempt on my part to avoid stirring up too much by way of frustration and envy with no immediate consoling outlet.
And today, Tuesday 21st January, on another beautiful wintry morning, the birds are darting about, a bumble bee has just headed for the flowers on the rosemary bush, the sun is shining and there is much in prospect that does feel worth waiting for in this Metropolitan high-rise hide-away, offering rewards of different sorts and respite from the wider world. In the meantime we are heading for nearby Richmond Park with some quickly assembled sandwiches.
I have long been a fan of Anna Pavord, a columnist through the print years of ‘The Independent’, whose prose weaved the personal joys and frustrations of planning and growing, with horticultural knowledge and gardening wisdom. And now twenty years after it was first published, her acclaimed book ‘The Tulip’ has been re-issued and has arrived in time for my birthday. Part I is full of interesting sections on the author’s travels in search of the bulb itself, it’s place, particularly in Western European culture and history, as well as fascinating accounts of the early growers and cultivators of these sought after bulbs. All accompanied by illustrations unsurprisingly mostly of tulips but including cartoons, pamphlets, fabrics of different sorts and 17th Century still life paintings. Part II is a listing of tulip species. All this amounts to a heavy tome rather than light reading – and I commend it.
Many years ago I lived just off the Fulham Road and from time to time would wander into an independent book shop not far away, run by an enthusiastic book-seller of changeable mood who fluctuated between an over the top enthusiasm for anything that crossed her path and a withdrawn morose quality that could permeate the shop – not always easy for potential customers. Into this milieu one day came Anna Pavord, who I immediately recognised and consequentially got caught up in my own excitement at the proximity. However, I was particularly dismayed when the shop-owner, characteristically absorbed in her own world, failed to recognise Anna Pavord who had to introduce herself, and was quietly explaining that she had come by arrangement to sign some copies of her book (as distinct from coming for a ‘book signing’) as I withdrew and left, reflecting on my various discomforts.
Thanks for the Memories
Lingering longer than a musical note but shorter by far than many man-made structures, the most enduring plants and flowers (other than the olives and for the record one beautifully scented rose which seemingly goes on for ever) apparently enjoy roof-top living on my south facing balcony. Whilst never particularly long livers as they battle against the elements and my erratic feeding and watering, they do last, moderately happily, and flowering well, for a number of years.
With the help of the archive on my ever present smart phone some of the most ephemeral flowers are on record and the roses particularly, including a rambler which of course flowers briefly but gives the birds very welcome cover, actually seem to do well in spite of the additional challenge of some black spot and the damage done earlier in the year by the inevitable green fly.
I always enjoy comments and advice and mostly follow it, learning as I go, although the results are not always the hoped for outcome – my fruiting cherry outgrew the balcony and is now thriving on the allotment with more space and plenty of trees nearby for cross-pollination. And I regret not having thanked the West Country reader who forwarded this cutting from a week-end gardening section. It was interesting to read but surprising too, as roses seem to be one of my most bankable plants – including ramblers, china roses, shrub roses and others I can’t identify. Once upon a time I spent my university years in the North of England and a fellow southerner calculated that one way or another you lost a month of daylight by travelling two hundred or so miles North. The calculation may be wrong but it seemed all too true to my southern sensibility. Perhaps I’ve been lucky with my roses but certainly they thrive with their faces in the sun. This is actually a problem as the blooms along the southern edge of the balcony all turn to face the sun and are then, frustratingly, best seen from the car park way below. Whether the sunny, south facing aspect is cause or effect, or a chance association, I can’t be sure but it might be worth trying again.
Since roses are part of my theme I’ve included photos of some of my roses from times past in the hope of encouraging all high rise container growers to try growing roses, although perhaps ramblers are rather ambitious and in truth after the very dry summer of 2018 I was on the point of abandoning mine – but the cooler, wetter weather of 2019 has saved it. The tits and robins appreciate the protection it offers and it’s extremely effective at keeping the magpies away from the feeders.
Hovering somewhere between detailed plans and overall scheme is the question of style – a word that has become ever more closely associated in the gardening press with words like contemporary and project – cottage garden style, formal style, Mediterranean style, or on my micro scale, a mixture of all three. Other words like ‘naturalistic planting’ and ‘wild life friendly’, both of which I favour, have also found their way into the language of everyday gardening.
Before the relentless Autumn rain made any planting an unlikely ambition, a conversation en route to the local garden centre with a nine year old aspiring dog owner, turned to the favoured breed of dog (golden retriever as it happens) to be followed by a very definite statement that he doesn’t like ‘mixed dogs’ because ‘you don’t know what sort of character they will have’. I’m not sure you can ever be sure but I think I know where he’s coming from. A definite style of garden like a definite breed gives you some reference points and a mixture risks becoming a mish-mash.
The shopping trip itself led to an impressive conversation about relative value. Was the rather spindly Trachelospermum Jasminoides (a London favourite) at half the size, better value than the much taller plants arrayed alongside the entrance gates at three times the price?
We went optimistically for the smaller plant with the hope that on a suitable diet and in a desirable location it would plump out, and it has. In fact there has been rather a lot of healthy growth and plumping out, almost to excess, of plants and trees on the terrace during this period leading up to these darkest days of Winter, when access has also been hampered by essential work to repair a leak into the flat below from a narrow walk-way leading to the main terrace. At the height of the emergency, portable pots and plants were rapidly relocated to friends and family and everything else that might impede the essential work was piled onto the main balcony and then once again neglected, but with rain continuing to fall there was an Autumnal growth spurt and even now plants confused by the intermittently milder weather, and frequent downpours, seem unsure about the moment to make their entrance or leave the stage.
I spotted an unseasonal scabious putting on a bit of a show earlier today (Sunday December 22nd 2019, the day of the Winter solstice) as well as one or two roses lingering on and most surprising of all a pelargonium sending out shoots somewhat ambitiously.
Having relinquished all thoughts of plant placement during the crisis, rather like a scattering of bulbs randomly thrown into an orchard to look more natural, which presumably in this context means distributed as nature intended, the various remaining large containers landed haphazardly. Of course the bulbs themselves in any natural planting scheme may or may not be the host of smaller native daffodils of Wordsworth and the wild.
Meanwhile I like what I see.
Still no space for the chairs first piled up against a wall, and now lodging with my ever tolerant sister-in-law, but otherwise liberated from too much planning, the terrace has emerged, as it happens, with a surprising charm. Meanwhile we have all entered calmer waters as the leak has been temporarily dealt with, water is no longer pouring in, the ‘at risk’ ceiling seems to be made of stern stuff and hasn’t collapsed to add to the disruption and discomfort below, the birds are back and there is time to consider what next.
This will include a return visit by the surveyors and workmen to complete the further definitive work to prevent another leak, now being blamed largely on poor design and an aging membrane, a replacement work bench on the balcony as several years of outdoor living have taken their toll and over time the effort required to prop it up has outstripped its contribution to outdoor life aloft, and hopefully creating a space for the chairs in the eventual scheme of things.
This is not to underestimate the losses – unplanted fritillary seeds sent by a cousin and hopefully still viable next year, no opportunity for Spring bulbs in the remaining upturned containers and much missed moments immersing myself in this city-edge roof garden, now with views for miles around, as the surrounding lime trees, due to be crown pruned before too long, have long since surrendered the last of their leaves. Nothing of course on the scale of the loss and devastation in parts of Yorkshire, or further afield in Venice, and now in neighbouring Surrey too as flood water reaps havoc on homes and habitats.
Throughout the second half of the year the white thrift (Armeria maritima) has gone on and on flowering. It arrived in a ubiquitous back plastic container at a moment when the plant stand opposite the main bedroom, and exposed to all the elements, was looking particularly sorrowful. So having found a terracotta pot, I put the plastic pot inside it’s more decorative counter-part with the intention of planting it properly but never did, and now never will, as it has rewarded my forgetfulness by giving an extended display, unlike the pots of pink thrift which I like rather more, but have been less impressive this year, and perhaps would prefer rather different planting conditions.
Who would have thought that this was the way to enjoy a plant native to British coastal areas but happily transplanted to this urban cliff edge also favoured by Mediterranean and other plants, including herbs such as bay and rosemary, as well as cistus and sweet box (Sarcococca), all of which have been recommended to me and have adapted surprisingly happily to container life at altitude.
I’m no numismatist, and have only just learnt to spell the word, as the collecting of coins has never been my interest. But for those who are, the British thruppenny bit had a design of thrift on the reverse for nearly twenty years until the early nineteen fifties and then remained in circulation up until decimalisation, ceasing to be legal tender in August 1971. I remember it well, and also as I grew older my childish annoyance that the aptly chosen, copper tolerant plant was reproduced with disproportionately large flowers, unlike anything found in nature. I might also have been annoyed at the allusion to frugal living, not my natural inclination, but something of a post-war necessity in a waste-not want-not age and now a necessity to counter the impact of climate change, and the ravages of a throwaway society.
Perchance to Dream
Many moons ago, I went on a poetry writing course in Provence that unexpectedly spanned the period between the death of Princess Diana and the outpouring of public grief, alongside the private agony, up to the funeral, memorable in particular ways. Whilst away from events in London, on the sun-soaked terrace and in the cooler interiors of the elegant ‘fin de siecle’ building we were using, I learned the eternal truth, namely that in writing a poem, or indeed in crafting any piece of writing, it is only through the act itself that you really find where the writing is taking you, and come to discover what there is to understand along the way. This came as an unexpected observation at the time, but so it is and as with writing so with gardening.
A serendipitous self-seeded plant, or a new bench, can shape and change things in very unexpected ways and I’m now converted to the possibility of an uncluttered future with larger containers and bigger plants replacing the many smaller pots that have long been a firm favourite. Of course I may break my resolve as the temptation to plant more, do more, grow more, experiment more is likely to be hard to resist.
However, at the moment the possibility of more space between things holds an allure.
Meanwhile the roses which should have been pruned by now are continuing to produce buds, although some are struggling with black spot on leaves which I should have carefully removed several weeks ago but didn’t.
The combination of stunted buds, washed out colour and disfigured leaves, with scent a distant memory, falls short, I suppose, of high summer and abundant blooms. But there is a magic in these determined efforts to ensure that there are flowers of some sort throughout the year even if they need a bit of seeking out in sheltered spots which might catch some Winter warmth, and will undoubtedly soon disappear again. But for now each flower or bud can be enjoyed and cherished, in a way that is very different from the lights and glitter not far away, or the massed banks of flowers that accumulated feet deep in Kensington Gardens over twenty years ago.
As an undergraduate, a lecturer once drew a red line right across an essay I’d written on a long forgotten subject, but possibly embryology as that was the lecturer’s field. At the bottom he wrote by way of explanation that he refused to tax both his eyes and his patience by trying to read my writing (this being in a pre-laptop era by some margin) so the essay had to be re-written without the exaggerated swirls and other embellishments that were, and more or less still are, a feature of my hand-writing. Like Cassius, the lecturer had a lean and hungry look but he may have had a point.
The loose, informal planting on the balcony, helped by this Summer’s growing conditions, has lapsed into an exaggerated informality which I’ve been enjoying along with the pollinators. However, the overgrowth has restricted access to the seating area, making it particularly difficult to weave between pots and fragile stems with glass or cup in hand.
There’s the matter of emergency access too.
Like other roof terraces, the balcony (much smaller than most but architecturally closer to a terrace) forms the roof of the flat below. Drawings from the period show the main roof ablaze having been set alight by an incendiary bomb early in the second world war, but now the main risk to life of all sorts occupying this high rise location, is from south westerly winds carrying the tail end of Atlantic storms or less often, scorching sun, somewhat absent this year.
So to this end weeds need to be removed to avoid enthusiatic growth in unsupervised spots (buddleia being the exemplar) and ultimately the risk of water penetration below; stray Autumn leaves clogging the gullies taking rain-water from the main roof need regular clearing and careful location of pots and containers is key to avoiding damage to the integrity of the roof/terrace membrane. Of course life being what it is, it is only as the storm clouds gather, or Tomasz Schafernaker alerts the nation that all these essential precautions are checked and double checked and sometimes found wanting. So as the water level rapidly rose to dangerpoint, and the escape route for the water from the downpipe was evidently blocked off by a handful of horse chestnut leaves, a recent problem was narrowly averted. Elsewhere I like to think that the dense plant growth forms a sort of temporary protective thatch allowing any vulnerable insect life to re-locate to secure water proof accomodation.
In this uncertain period of history, of climate change and ecological catastrophes of different kinds: plastic throttling marine life, natural habitats giving way to commercial enterprises and countries such as Jordan struggling with an expanding population and barely enough water to survive, there are also initiatives of all sorts aimed at enhancing well-being and the natural world. One such is Sow the City http://www.sowthecity.org/cornbrook.htmworking with Cornbrook Medical Practice in Hulme Manchester to create a new well-being garden for growing, wildlife and relaxing, to provide nature based interventions for patients.
I can certainly relate to the benefits of gardening, to a project that requires some thought, planning and attention, and relative to the setting and space available I do consider that I’m more or less succeeding on the growing and wildlife fronts, while also failing dismally on the relaxing front. This has been pointed out to me. It might be arguable what is meant by ‘relaxing’ but certainly the opportunity to relax might involve a comfortable seat, a place to put drinks, books, i-Pads etc, a chance to linger with friends before or after a meal, a chance to dream.
Reaching the small seating area as the Summer display peaked and then tipped over into a sort of loose intermingling meant a rather discouraging short walk for any visitors to the balcony. Roses and other robust plants acted as a deterrent, while I was inclined to hover anxiously to ensure that anything delicate was undamaged, which was unsurprisingly a bit of a deterrent in itself. By contrast, on the allotment I watched spellbound as a visiting grandchild, eager to touch the growing pumpkins, carefully threaded his way through trailing stems anxiously ensuring that he avoided any damage to the emerging butternut squashes, still rather immature and susceptible to careless footwork.
The seasonal plants with spreading habits may need to be replaced by those with a vertical habit although I would struggle without lemon verbena
the smaller pots which I move around as they come into flower or a gap emerges, but which also add to the clutter, might need a bit of de-cluttering
serious thought will need to be given to the larger plants which at present form an increasingly successful decorative framework but are under threat from prospective required works to resurface the terrace, so I can see I will have to cooperate in due course, but finding temporary lodgings might be an option
and I have spotted a small table that I rather like and might buy to replace the present one which has particularly splayed feet, although it doubles up usefully as a place for a plant or two and isn’t over large itself.
All rather small gestures to deal with an admittedly unsatisfactory situation, but I’m beginning to think that a relaxing glass of wine or cup of tea with a friend is worth trading in a few plants.
No-dig and other gardening methods
The name of Charles Dowding filtered through to me when I lived and worked in the West Country. At one time I was seeing a young woman in connection with my work who amongst other passions was a very keen allotment gardener, admittedly in a rather sporadic way. Nevertheless she indirectly introduced my to the concept of the ‘#no-dig’ method https://charlesdowding.co.uk/, not to be confused with not digging, an altogether different approach to gardening favoured by most gardeners I surmise, at one time or another, when hard pressed or time is limited. The no-dig method relies heavily on the availability of ample quantities of compost which is a commodity that in itself requires a certain amount of discipline to get right. Although living in a building with a compost bin, assembling the right balance of ingredients has so far erred on the side of becoming a waste food collection point rather than a source of a crumbly, nutricious substance that could benefit pots and containers by replenishing nutrients and improving the structure of the growing medium. I’m now wondering if the compost bin could be turned into a wormery with a few adjustments and general benefit as the supply of food waste out-strips other contributions.
Meanwhile in this season of reflection and looking forward, an up to date inventory of plants on the balcony and their places of origin would include:
One Caryopteris x clandonensis “Sterling Silver” – native to East Asia
Two Eucalyptus nicholii – a black stemmed eucalpytus endemic in New South Wales
Three Olea europaea – found in the Mediterranean basin from Portugal to the Levant
Four Mediterranean herbs – bay, sage, rosemary and thymes, by definition Mediterranean
Five roses – of uncertain origin and 1 China rose ‘Mutabilis’ – member of the genus Rosa Chinensis native to South West China as well as five containers of various tulbaghia – native to the Eastern Cape of South Africa
Six hardy geraniums including ‘Roxanne’ and other species of cranesbill – many of which are native to the British Isles
Seven climbers – including 4 clematis – mainly of Chinese and Japanese origin and 1 honeysuckle – native to northern latitudes in North America and Eurasia
Eight Verbena bonariensis – native to tropical South America but equally happy here
and assorted others which could include parsley – native to Central Mediterranean areas but naturalised more widely, Origanum Vulgare – native to temperate Western and South western Eurasia, a mixture of lavenders including English lavender although not actually a native of England …… and so ad infinitum.
The opportunistic buttercups which have arrrived and true to form spread and multiplied, as well as the white clover, native to Europe including the British Isles, are heavily outnumbered by non natives in this cornucopia of plants, evidently flourishing and abundant, relative to the setting and space available I remind myself, before perhaps giving a false illusion of scale. The reality being that all can be dismantled, removed and transported elsewhere in a matter of hours and days – see below.
So the question that comes to mind, when I look out at this rather familiar assembly of informal ‘English’ plants and planting is which came first – a bias towards Mediterrranean plants because of the particular conditions that all plants have to surmount in order to flourish on the balcony (wind, wet and warmth) or is it simply, that these are the plants I love and like and by happenstance and history are largely not British natives (or their decendents) but look very much at home in this informal urban setting.
And does it matter? Taking care to avoid buying imported plants from the Mediterranean does of course matter very much at the moment as the xylella fastidiosa bacterium from the New World is now killing olive trees across Italy and beyond.
An elderly membrane and cracks in stone work have been identified as a source of water penetration elsewhere in the building, so all balconies, terraces and walkways now need to be fully inspected and repaired as necessary so that this interesting, but elderly building can again be made watertight.
The plants and containers are on the move and I am thinking about how to rearrange the space (re-design would be an exaggeration) in order to ensure better access to a re-positioned seating area.
The art critic Jonathan Jones argues that ‘art is the place where discovery and imagination meet’, lets hope the same applies to redoing the balcony. I’m up against time but there are plants that I will discover buried in the undergrowth, and who knows, I may be persuaded to settle for fewer containers.
Meanwhile watering continues as the containers in the rain-shadow still need attention in the intervals between the Autumn rains.
So the question might be why did the two words ‘#BareEarth’ come together in my mind and linger long enough to start a train of thoughts that meandered through the snatched statistics extracted from reports and communiqués from a recent environmental conference, to the trials and tribulations of allotment gardening and back to my balcony and blog, which began as a somewhat self aggrandizing attempt to reduce the number of bare balconies in my natural habitat of South West London?
In fact, the proportion of local balconies and roof gardens that this season is resplendent with pots and plants of all sorts has steadily increased, and I am pleased to say so has the range of readers of my blog which I am reliably told now includes South Africa, so thank you; but there is of course no connection between the two. And on the balcony at this time of year bare earth would be welcome as I am missing the arrival of sedums to extend and expand supplies of late summer food for visiting insects, as well as add late summer charm. But to find bare earth or an empty pot means ousting something prematurely from its summer residence. Of course things have fallen by the way-side: the chives have all struggled, only one of my treasured lemon verbena plants grew to a mature height, and the strawberries were smothered by pelargoniums and hardy geraniums. While on the allotment bare earth is all too visible as mid-season crops have come and gone and their replacements are still in their infancy.
So the ambition is to become familiar with green manure and perpetual spinach, which I hope lives up to its name, and at this time of year to allow the butternut squash to continue sprawling across neighbouring strips. Allotment plots tend to be divided into strips https://bkthisandthat.org.uk/brief-history-of-allotments-in-england/. We have twelve but at any one time are probably only in full command of eight or nine, unlike our neighbouring allotmenteer who has a number of allotments in this five acre site, in part by way of an informal process of sub-letting. However, he helps the common cause by keeping his whole domain in remarkably full production. The site is surprisingly somewhat undersubscribed but is a haven for birds and insects as well as the resilient and unwelcome Mare’s Tail. By custom, excess fruit and veg is left on a nearby wall for anyone to pick up and enjoy although once the courgette season has passed it is a less reliable food source.
An end of season review would also have to conclude that my first proprietorial year of flower-strip responsibility has been very mixed. Sweet smelling, long lasting and long flowering sweet peas filled the kitchen for several weeks, while a cherry (more fruit than flower of course) and a bush honeysuckle that will hopefully flower this winter, have both been successfully transplanted from the balcony, relieved no doubt that they are now in more appropriate surroundings. The sole survivor of the original group of sunflowers reared aloft has reached the stage of seed production which will hopefully please the birds, but both stocks and cosmos for different reasons were a failure. I selected stocks that were labelled as ‘multi-coloured’ or something of the sort, imagining a mixture of purple, pink and yellow flowers, not quite my taste but unquestionably colourful, not expecting that all three of the differently coloured flower heads would appear Medusa like on one (stunted) plant. I will read the label more carefully another time. The cosmos were planted out too early and never recovered, but a late crop of radicchio has formed a pretty pink circle at the foot of the cherry tree.
Meanwhile, on the balcony, although two of the three olive trees are continuing to put on plenty of extension growth which will need to be watched and in time reduced again, there will be no crop of ripening fruit this year. The intense and persistent summer heat of last year being noticeably absent.
Gaura ‘Karalee White’
Wild Marjoram – Origanum Vulgare
Making a bee-line
It is Sunday, and for those who are interested in these things, the fifth and final day of a rain affected Ashes (cricket) match at Lords, a few miles to the North of my cloud- covered balcony. The rain is due in twenty minutes, or so we are told by the attentive cricket commentators, and now the day will be shaped by the adjusted opportunities for play. But what is more astonishing than the extraordinarily vivid and garish MCC colours, which are a clash of orange and yellow that nature and my favourite garden designers would do much better, is the tenacious grip that the solitary and bumble bees have on their flowers of choice while the wind gathers force ahead of the wet weather. Do they live amonst the jungle on my roof garden, do they fly up from the well kept but rather sterile communal gardens below, or do they make the journey from further afield? Answers please on a post-card or a comment on the blog.
One of my over-wintering resolutions is to study the different identifying characteristics of the foraging bees that I hope are making some use of my soon to be renovated bee ‘hotels’, due for a re-fit to provide a greater variety of accomodation.
I’m taking as my guide July’s edition of ‘The Garden’ and an article by Jean Vernon based on her new book, ‘The Secret Lives of Garden Bees’ https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/47355575-the-secret-lives-of-garden-bees. Unfortunately, I haven’t got past first base as the whole process of indentification (birds, butterflies and now bees) always has me foxed. The yellow bands of the garden bumblebee (Bombus horturum) look to my untutored eye remarkably similar to the gingery thorax of the common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). I’m more confident that leafcutter bees (Megachile species) have been visiting as evidence of smooth, circular leaf damage is, happily, everywhere.
The best vantage point for enjoying the plants and associated wild-life on the terrace at this time of year is now, somewhat regretably, often looking out from the main bedroom rather than perching awkwardly amidst the abundant greenery, which I notice includes late-flowering roses and some rather pretty, but largely hidden fuschias. Although forgotten, I hope they will now enhance the late Summer display, but I’m not a huge fan, and didn’t choose wisely and well, so we’ll see. Salvias on the other hand are a favourite and seem to be extremely happy in their varied colours and sizes, reliably coming back year after year and will flower up till Christmas if previous experience is anything to go by.
My wish for time to stand still, for a moment, in these poignant last moments of high summer, lingers alongside thoughts of new possibilities, new planting ideas, new colour combinations. All of which is echoed in the seasonal and herbaceous plants, already beginning the annual retreat, and creating space for the Autumn planting.
Meanwhile the seduction has also begun as catalogues are arriving by post and e-mail, with alluring pictures of gardens in Spring with blossom and bulbs to delight the senses. I began a list a few days ago of the tulip bulbs I wanted to buy, topped by China Town and La Belle Epoque, both of which are good in pots, last a long time and are not too tall for this windy spot. But it seems too early to be writing shopping lists when there is much to enjoy even on this space-limited spot.
I was unsuccessful with snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) last year but a very kind cousin has gathered some seed for me which I hope I can coax into life. Always susceptible to pretty planting combinations I am also hoping to pair the fritillaries (spelling?) with some other slim stemmed Spring flowers in anticipation of the bees next year. Apparently snake’s head fritillaries secrete nectar with a higher sugar concentration than most other bulbs so well worth the effort, and I have the right spot, a long way of course from a riverside meadow, but in good view, in a rather handsome terracotta pot and adequately exposed to the winter rains.
Some experimentation is to be recommended – how else would I have discovered that underplanting E Nicholii (my miniature eucalyptus) with thyme and other herbs left to flower through the summer has been a favourite spot for bees and other pollinators. The combination of herbs and delicately fronded tree has been a visual treat as well as a sensory delight with the characteristic smell of eucalyptus oil sometimes mingly gently with the fragrant thyme.
The temptation to cram too many plants into too little space, and than wait to see what happens, has only been a partial success this year as the discrepancy between plants enjoying cooler damp conditions, and those wanting heat and light was this year heavily weighted in favour of those preferring a cooler climate and the gaura in particular lost out.
Wandering out in early morning onto the terrace, roof garden, balcony, call it what you will, (even the dictionaries are undecided) at this time of year is to be embraced by flowers and scents, and considerable insect activity, while the visiting birds tend to scatter when I arrive and return when the coast is clear.
My first attemps at growing flowering spires on this windswept high-rise terrace met with failure. I quickly realised that spikes of foxgloves, verbascum, delphiniums or larkspur were all too vulnerable up aloft and even I didn’t attempt hollyhocks, which have self-seeded themselves in my step-mother’s front garden to enviably wondrous effect, with the sun on their faces and the warmth of the brick frontage behind.
So finding ways to add height (and hoping the while for some shelter too) has been a long held ambition and pleasingly has met with some success. Elderly olive trees (well, elderly by the standards of potted plantlife that has criss-crossed southern England) and several clematii on assorted obelisks, have been consistently happy, as has my first Eucalyptus Nicholii, which for the first time in our acquaintance is exuding a wondrous smell of eucalyptus oil and unsurprisingly is sticky to the touch. But there have been plenty of failures too, usually because I’ve asked too much of plants I have, knowingly or otherwise, planted in the wrong situation; subsequently life in a container has been too cramping, or the wind too bracing or the heat too much.
However, I have asked nothing of the three thalictrum plants that remain of the five I planted a couple of years ago and then ignored. This year, even planted in a crowded container, they are thriving and growing upwards apace, bending and weaving in the wind, with the lower flowering stems threading through, and holding on to, the plant life around them. They are too airy to provide any protection from the wind but the tallest is well over eight foot, which for my diminuitive space is an impressive height, although of course in the greater scheme of things I acknowledge is rather insignificant. In an area with protected plane trees not far away and magnificent limes that now line an escape route from the Metropolis, and look down on the aforesaid balcony, in this city margin I know I can’t really compete.
I am, however, delighted with this unexpected graceful and quietly spectacular beauty, and feel encouraged to grow more statuesque plants than my relatively modest sized containers would suggest. The verbena bonariensis, which are not long livers, and usually somewhat branching, this year are growing ramrod straight and proudly upwards, in defiance of my disinterest, and have now really caught my eye.
So, emboldened I have ordered some Veronicastrum virginicum Lavendelturm, https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/111539/i-Veronicastrum-virginicum-i-Lavendelturm/Details which are really meant for the ‘back of the border’ but once they come will go wherever I find space and that might mean I will be peering through them to the world beyond, which could be an added bonus. And in future I might seek out other late flowering plants for the ‘back of the border’ and plant them at will relying on the surrounding shorter plants to act as stake-holders.
A visiting friend and horticulturalist was impressed, and even more surprised, that I had managed to grow so many flowering plants in the undoubtedly windy conditions. If you can bear the losses and failures along the way and understand that getting to know your particular lofty conditions will dictate your choices, I do commend the effort involved. As a cousin recently observed, I seem to like airy plants with their ephemeral beauty, and I do, but they can also bend in the wind without being snapped off, while the solid brick parapet provides a micro climate and some wind protection for the ‘lower storey’.
I’m not convinced that dividing planting schemes into upper, middle and lower storey is my favourite current convention but it seems to hold sway and I still haven’t achieved the hoped for wind break encircling the seating area – which at this time of year consists of a small table obscured by plants with two chairs buried amongst the greenery.
(Click on photo to enlarge)
(Hover over photo for name)
And so it Came to Pass
Mid-Summer has come and gone and my carefully controlled palette of colour featuring pale pinks, deeper pinks and mauves (having found in previous years that my contrived ‘pops’ of colour didn’t really work) has now given way to brighter colours, together with white penstemon, Anenome ‘Wild Swan’, now on the wane, and a rather hidden burnt orange rose. I even found a some wild strawberries the other day – hopefully the first of many.
As I’ve explained, sitting outside is often curtailed by chilly gusts which find their way through the horticultural defences, and the larger containers on wheel-mounted pot stands have to be rolled out of the way if more than two people want a glass of wine ‘en plein air’. It’s awkward and a far cry from leisurely life in sunny sheltered gardens but astonishingly still worth the journey for a wide variety of insects and bumble bees a plenty, which arrive early and stay late.
Sitting close to the sky with the clouds, galaxies and planets beyond, is a privilege and to be reminded and amazed by the world around us and our infinitely small place in the universe.
Coming back down to earth, and gardening in such a confined space risks becoming a somewhat persecutory experience as imperfections are hard to ignore. No opportunities for mare’s tail up here (Equisetum arvense, an ancient invasive deep rooted perennial which is the occupying and preoccupying weed at the allotment) or couch grass another ground based invader, but oxalis corniculata, creeping wood sorrel, can quickly gain ground in containers and smother small plants trying to gain a foothold. Pretty enough in small doses it nevertheless has to go, or at least be constrained and is best done while sitting within reach of the larger pots, its preferred site, and drinking a cup of coffee.
My father was both a keen gardener and an enthusiast for the great outdoors (Welsh mountains on drizzly days being a favourite) and he had an eye for design. With age I noticed that the subtle changes of tone and texture in his gardens, which I can still remember from younger days, had largely given way to bright coloured pelargoniums standing out in stark contrast to background greenery. To my shame it was a long time before my snobbish sense of taste yielded enough to recognise and realise that as a man in his nineties, with failing eyesight, these were now the colour contrasts available to him.
Worth understanding for the future too, alongside noticing that for others of all ages, with a degree of visual impairment and reduced capacity to discriminate one tone from another, brightness and vivid contrasts can often work best.
For the Moment
I came across some white clover today in amongst some cultivated bee friendly salvias and verbena. Buttercups happily co-habit too with the ornamental planting as well as this year’s wild marjoram.
I also come across a large pebble some distance from the birds’ watering hole – an old stone platter filled with pebbles and regretably topped up with tap water since there are no opportunities hereabouts to access the rain water without taking possession of the communal drain-pipes. By chance, a Radio 4 science programme was discussing the use of tools by homo sapiens, monkeys and other animals, including crows. My bête-noir. They have a habit of coming to the water dish and dunking offensive looking treasures, using the stones (one of which had clearly escaped) as some sort of utensil, before flying off leaving polluted watery remains behind them. It has to be owned that although one overarching thought when I’m trying to plan for next season’s plants, is what is wild life friendly and how to encourage more, in reality I could do without the crows.
Plenty of untidy corners co-habit with plenty of carefully bred flowers that attract the bees, have long flowering seasons and need very little attention. It’s not exactly wilding which I am in favour of, but have to watch up here, since self-seeding opportunities include cracks and crevices which opportinists might enjoy at the expense of water pentration into the flat below. For ‘WILDING, the return of nature to a British farm’, click here for the youtube clip to learn more https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FMfUrSzAjg.
Hardy geraniums bridge the gap between the the bright and beautiful and serendipitous arrivals like the clover. They are generally disease free, wildlife friendly, happy to be chopped radically before coming back again, and seem to enjoy pot life where those that want it can get enough shade and water. Geranium Pratense is a favourite. Last year it capitulated to the heat, this year it arrived early and stayed late and has managed to avoid getting powdery mildew until very recently, which was a reminder to begin the cut back.
Think of thrift and you think of the shoreline, but gritty compost in a south facing spot will do as well.
Don’t grow chillies unless you have a green-house.
If you opt for selected birdfood (mealworms and peanuts would be my recommendation) you will have plenty of visiting tits, including families of longtails, as well as other garden birds, and will also mostly avoid the seed prefering, marauding feral pigeons.
I’m also delighted that the pair of wood pigeons continue to find enough to be rewarded and the thrushes and blackbirds keep the slugs and snails under control.
And finally : I have found that writing each post for the blog is a good way of paying attention to this evolving high rise garden, and I’ve learnt a few plant names along the way too.
Pisa, I recently discovered, is a city not only of historic monuments but contemporary dilemmas too. Having retreated to the hotel after a trip spent largely avoiding a chill wind and heavy showers, and somewhat suprised by a particularly heavy police presence, the small square opposite the hotel, well away from the historic centre, gradually filled up with people of all ages mingling amidst Che Guevara banners, efficient rubbish collectors and trinket sellers likely to have negotiated apalling crossings from North Africa, their probable point of departure. They were treated kindly by the crowd and sold some beads, against a background of Carribean music, occasional speeches and a haze of smoke.
Some of the crowd, middle aged, middle class and articulate, could be imagined from my viewing point above as lawyers or doctors joining the cause, this being a plea to legalise the cultivation of cannabis to ensure its availability on therapeutic grounds. I got a bit lost at some point, as although English was the language of much of the music and some of the banners, following the speeches would have been difficult even for a fluent Italian speaker as passion and an inadequate PA system, as well as the substance in question, reduced potentially articulate arguments to a rather less fluent verbal stream.
Unable to follow the action in front of me I turned to the Internet and discovered that this particular demonstration was one of a number across Italy, and that the introduction of some fine detailed legislation in 2016 to control the expanding Italian hemp industry had in ways I couldn’t follow affected the availability of cannabis so that there is only one legal cannabis farm in Italy, guarded by the army. I also discovered, but will soon forget, that the ratio of CBD-to-THC in botanical and pharmceutical preparations is what determines the therapeutic versus psychoactive effects of cannabis.
At 9.0pm the music stopped, the remaining litter was picked up, and everyone walked quietly away.
On medical and social grounds I’m on the liberal side of the argument while falling short of planning to grow any plants myself. Attractive as they may be as plants, I’m not keen on the clandestine aspect and am reminded of the problems that beset a local church when the crypt inadvertently hosted a temporary cannabis farm which only came to light after the electricity bill soared unexpectedly.
Transport of Delights
Meanwhile, England was basking in the sun with the Chelsea Flower Show in full swing, demonstrating the extent of the possible, horticulturally and imaginatively. I was pleased to discover that this year naturalistic planting, embracing weeds (not so easy with the oxalis which has taken up residence in several of my favourite pots) and planting trees are all to the fore. I can always manage the first two as buttercups and other serendipitous arrivals can ensure the unexpected but my record to date with trees is very mixed. The three olive trees (two brought from the West Country and one more recent arrival) presumably experience an exposed, elevated south facing balcony as a reasonable substitute for a Greek hillside, and thrive, one Eucalyptus ‘Nicholii’ is flourishing, the other struggling, and whilst the fruit bearing cherry is clearly enjoying its turn in the sun the Japenese ‘Kojo-no-mai‘ is not.
I have previously admitted to enjoying the set design aspect of gardening, creating an overall effect which doesn’t always bear close scrutiny, which perhaps explains the absence of horticultural detail as I write. However, I hope I’ve now developed the capacity to go a little beyond the studied placement of a few seasonal plants, replaced at will, and I have been wondering what to do with my not so flowering flowering cherry.
This was coming into bloom before being hit by more rain earlier in the year, when the container was already sodden from winter downpours. Briefly, in the warmth of February some blossum appeared.
It was an expensive plant that has developed an attractive shape, but it is now dying, or more likely dead. One option would be to admit defeat and replace it, mourning both the plant and the cost involved. On the other hand I’ve tried my hand at growing seedlings this year, including some annual climbers – namely pink Thunbergia – in keeping with the overall colour scheme, that were doing rather well at an early stage while hopefully avoiding a ‘Barbara Cartland’ effect. The cherry tree presented itself as an attractive, available alternative to my tasteful and contemporary rusted obelisks (I have three already) which could support the climbers in their search for the sun, planted together with some trailing ivies heading in the opposite direction. My hope being that the combined vigorous growth could make good use of the wet conditions and help the pot dry out thereby allowing the cherry to recover. This is of course only a case study of one but there’s no evidence so far that this is a remedy destined to succeed.
It might have been wiser to relinquish any hope of the cherry’s revival and gone for another small tree which could have begun to establish itself in the anticipated warmer months, joining in my hoped for harmonious horticultural jumble in high season while narrowly avoiding chaos the rest of the year.
Transience and Transitions
Thalictrum (plural thalictra) are a group of plants I have only recently discovered. Having made the dicovery I then acquired a few thalictra(ums) delavayi without grasping that they are tall plants (growing to over a metre), shade preferring, late summer flowering, and probably much better suited to expansive planting, but having silvery green leaves and purple lace flowers, undeniably tempting. So a year or so ago I bought three or four, planted them inappropriately, enjoyed them, and having discovered my mistake then expected them to fade away. But in their meagre pots and containers, both in the sun and the shade they determidly come back. I am delighted and rather surprised and will now leave them alone as they seem to be doing rather well.
The overall effect at the moment is joyous as flowers are emerging every day, the greenery is abundant and it does feel as though the planting in some way combines to form a whole, although I’d be hard put to say why or explain how. Even through the windows and doors (sadly nothing as sophisticated as bifolds or tri-folds but rather paned glass) there are, mostly, glimpses of interesting plants, including strawberries with promise, and greenery of all sorts. But that is not the whole picture and as ever there are some plants, as well as one area, evidently in transition, which at the moment seem rather incoherent and charmless.
The outlook from the sitting room has been charming, giving months of pleasure while the helebores tumbled around amidst the shorter lived tulips, and it will be again when the salvias really get going. But regrettably, although the outlook is dominated by a vigorous elderly clematis, with splendid flowers and a determination to provide wonderful colour and interest, the supporting act is letting the side down.
I am waiting expectantly for the next phase to begin, when the white flowers and powerful scent of the city favourite Trachelospermum jasminoides gradually overtake the fading clematis, and for a brief period the two climbers co-habit and compliment each other.
All very different from a Chelsea show garden, which in addition to the artistry of the designer and the experience of the constructors, benefits from the knowledge and knowhow of the plant nurseries detailed understanding of different designers’ requirements and the neccessity to hold back or advance the emergence of particular flowers. Growing conditions, including soil type, humidity, light conditions and temperature are all skillfully managed, or manipulated, to suit the final display. The significance of the gaze from above or within is not a new concept and of course varies in scale from Le Nôtre’s ambitions for Versailles, to re-arranging a terracotta pot outside the bedroom door. However, I still find myself oscillating between the sure and certain knowledge that in any one year there are always some plants that are an unexpected success and others that have a disappointing season, while still occasionally hankering after and wishing that, for once, it could all look at its best for one glorious moment.
Planting a ‘china’ rose in an oversized container, in an Easterly aspect, trapped below the surrounding parapet wall was a mistake.
Clematii on the other hand love the sunny, windy aspect with their roots below the same surrounding wall, so perhaps another clematis and a new obelisk, purchased this time as I don’t have any spare trees looking for companions, is the answer.
And I will expand my collection of Tulbaghia whenever possible – unfussy and well adapted to my high rise roof garden, and with an exceptionally long flowering season and delicate flower heads which weave in amongst other plants, they are reliably happy hereabouts.
Knowing the while that a container garden is temporary, and like a show garden will one day be dismantled and packed up, but for the moment rewards all the effort.
The elements are here on the balcony – fruits of different sorts (a fruiting cherry looking happy and healthy having come through it’s first Winter), strawberries looking incredibly eager to go forth and multiply and the olive trees promising another year of fruit, which although too few to put through the complex process of curing and frementing on their own in order to become edible, could be taken to a co-operative if I find one ready to receive offerings later in the year.
With global warming, or perhaps changes in cyclical weather patterns, the olive line now stretches northwards across from Oxford and beyond, although in truth not necessarily producing fruit. However, I once heard tell of an exterprising horticulturist who applied to the EU for an olive subsidy, the details of which now escape me. Being essentally honest, and living (from memory) perhaps in Doncaster, he applied on behalf of something in the order of a dozen or so trees, but the incredulous administrator, with limited knowledge of the weather patterns in the north of England, converted the units to thousands, and so a fortune was apparently made, or at least the possibility was created.
Meanwhile I am managing to grow plenty of herbs, including bay, but as this is the only plant I’m trying to train into a formal shape (also a characteristic of French potagers) I am ambivalent about random culinary pickings, so my prunings will have to be kept for later use. Otherwise chives, sage, parsley, rosemary in abundance, thyme, lavender and oregano. Oddly no mint, so something to add to the shopping list.
As I have previously explained, amongst my favourites is wild marjoram (oregano) which isn’t always easy to come by in city plant centres. Having found some on-line late last summer I was pleased to fill that particular gap in my plant list and was careful to find a sheltered spot to help the juvenile plants overwinter. So I was disappointed and annoyed with myself when I realised that none had survived due to my carelessness. I had forgotten that the downpipes from the extensive roof above are bizarrely designed, since having done their bit to take the water off the roof, the system relies on the gradient of the terraced area before rainwater is channelled on further down. This means that cold winter water lingers around for a while in some sections of the balcony after heavy downpours, and placing pots of marjoram in the flood-plain was evidently a mistake, now remedied with more plants from the same supplier. I’ve learnt my lesson and have put the new arrivals in elevated positions, at least for the moment.
I can’t claim to having any vegetables, and the plant collection is a combination of plants familar in southern England and southern France, or both. Clematis do well, roses for a while, so too the expanding collection of tulbaghias which look rather Mediterranean but come from South Africa and like the extremes of temperature, with high winds and good light levels that the balcony offers. I just need to keep watering them.
Casualties of the Storm
I have begun the growing season well with plenty of cutting back, feeding, watering and planning all going ahead. The intention being to reduce the number of trip hazards, have fewer containers with more impressive and better nurtured contents (all of which involves doing my homework which has never been my strong point) and keeping to the overall plan for the year ahead. Plants that are obviously dying have sometimes reluctantly gone (the reluctance of course being mine not the plants), some containers have also gone or been re-cycled as crocks and as ever I have had to relinguish some hoped for additions to the planting as the wind and weather have taken their toll. Rather satisfactorily, however, a small bush honeysuckle, which has never enjoyed its restricted existence in spite of being ‘suitable for container growing‘, is now happliy re-cycled to the allotment ready to do its bit to attract the local pollinators.
I’m intending too, to limit the amount I spend on the balcony as the cost per picking of thyme or parsley far exceeds the price of a supermarket packet – but on the other hand unlike ‘our friend in the North’ I never intended this to be a profitable enterprise although learning from my mistakes sometimes proves rather expensive.
‘Faux’ shabby can be rather expensive too and without the charm and history of ‘real’ shabby, neither of which can be found in great abundance amongst my semi-industrial pots and spaces up on high, sheltered from the weather by the creaky factory style roof above. Actually I’m rather tempted by both faux and real shabby from time to time and always hankered after the careworn wooden table that had once been part of the outdoor furniture of my childhood. Many moves later, and with much of the other furniture finding new habitats over the years, the old table, layered with paint, and with geraniums atop, found its final resting place nestled into my father’s last garden.
Garden sheds still evoke Proustian memories of a particular musty smell, conjuring up summer warmth and horticutural debris. The allotment shed is rather small, so difficult to actually get inside, and the door stays open to the elements while work is going, on so no accumulated sensory legacy. However, at home the whole operation has moved indoors. Lacking a shed, still less a greenhouse, the kichen draining board has to do and as there is a certain amount of space on top of the kitchen cupboards for seedlings amongst chitting potatoes, house plants and various objets d’art, with a large skylight giving ample light, it doubles up quite successfully as a work station.
Ma or the Space Between
Willing as ever to be educated by Monty Don I have learnt a bit about the importance of the space between things, Ma, as in late Winter he tried to explain the mysteries of Japanese gardens and the governing philosophy. However, I’m struggling.
Ma is a Japanese word which can be roughly translated as gap, space, pause, or the space between two structural parts with the word ‘space’ suggesting or conveying ‘interval’.
I’ve always been unsuccessful with maples, in or out of pots, and am now rather troubled by recollections of the time a Japanese student spent a year learning English while living at the top of the Victorian terraced house, with long thin garden, that was home at the time. It was a bit of cultural shock on all sides, as the emphasis on neatness and formality even extended to plates of beans on toast, with the beans arranged in neat order one side of the plate and triangles of toast on the other. So the principle of Ma was evident there too and I have never forgotten my shame as any meal I prepared lacked the elegance and restraint she modelled but I still find so difficult to emulate.
The garden she looked out on, while helping with the washing up in those pre-dishwasher days, was a typical mixture of straggly shrubs, patchy lawn, wobbly fence and an assortment of pots outside the back door. All very different from the gardens she would have heard of, and perhaps visited, while growing up in a high-rise flat in Sapporo, a city in Hokkaido the nothernmost of Japan’s main islands, known for it’s volcanoes and hot springs. On her part she was full of wonder at the summer day length, which was to her as unexpected as the domestic informality she encountered, since at 43 degrees N Sapporo has much less seasonal variation in day length than London at 51.
The bamboo parasol, a lasting legacy of her stay, still lingers near the front door, and is an endless source of fascination for the visiting rising nine year old who will soon have arms long enough to open it out on his own. I’m also rather pleased that at this late stage I’m surprisingly allowing something of her cultural heritage to permeate my thinking. Last night I threw away a superfluous bird feeder in yellow plastic that has never attracted any birds, and so was a phoney boost to my commitment to bird feeding. Surprisingly, there was immediately a greater sense of space, as for the moment at least, there was a bigger gap between the honeysuckle branches so revealing the Surrey hills, remarkably different from the dramatic snow capped mountains of northern Japan.
As I’ve tried to explain previously, this really is a scaled down enterprise with gardening at the level of the individual plant, and yes, removing one single eye-catching object has curiously made a difference. The options are to take one or two strides to the right or to the left after stepping out onto the terrace, and even these have to be shortened in high summer when the containers are overflowing. Then you are up against an array of pots carefully staggered in various ways, both into the space and vertically wherever possible. But for the next few weeks, before the surrounding trees knit together in a dense summer canopy, the view through the emerging shimmering early leaves to the edge of the hills beyond, is really rather magical.
Meanwhile although I’m not up for the dedicated and aggressive pruning that Japanese gardening requires I am hopeful that as the bay tree grows up, together with the sweet box now smelling spectacularly, there will be a greater sense of space at ground level. No raked gravel underfoot but seeing more of my carefully sourced beaten-earth toned tiles would be a bonus.
Notes from a particularly small garden
Anyone travelling into west Wales, and stopping for coffee at one of the familiar multiple coffee shops along the motorway near Bridgend, should look out for the free bags of used coffee grounds ready to be picked up, recycled and added to the compost bin.
Sadly lacking a Spring green canopy of trees of my own I’ve finally admitted the obvious, that my growing conditions are more Mediterranean than middle England and so unsurpringly it is the olives, rosemary and eucalyptus than can keep going through the Winter ready to profit from the exposed, sunny conditions the rest of the year.
And as we all know there is no such thing as a free lunch – or maybe even reliably hot free Serrano chilli plants. A cousin who last year planted the free chilli seeds she acquired with the bill after a Mexican meal, has been disappointed to be producing bland chillis, rather than the fiery hot variety that was promised. All chillis need heat (in the sense of high ambient temperatures) to reach their maximum culinary potential but this should be feasible when grown behind glass or in a poly-tunnel in sunny southern counties. It’s been done to spectacular effect by a Bangladeshi restaurant owner in Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, I seem to remember from an earlier episode of Gardeners World.