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.
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.
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 pomegranate – variety ‘Provence’ see above
- 1 rosa Glauca (syn.Rubrifolia) – a European native rose with single flowers and intense red hips
- 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
- Verbena Bonariensis – some are destined for the allotment as they attract pollinating insects long into late Summer
- 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
- 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.
- Scabious – which like it dry but are relatively shortlived in (my) pots.
Lastly, ladybird larvae – an expensive aid in the battle to control the blackfly attracted to the cherry tree on the allotment.
And beyond price this week, the second week in February, in the sunshine, I saw my first bee of the season – a solitary bee I think, and today a few days later my first ladybird, perhaps out and about too early, but very welcome.
I never did get round to studying the life habits of solitary bees in detail but thanks to the internet I have learned that there are over 200 species of solitary bees, which do not produce honey, do not live in hives and do not have a queen. They are nevertheless important pollinators, the males have no sting and they emerge in the Spring. Some nest in cavities and it seems that last year’s gift of two ‘bee hotels’ for my birthday early in the year may have been occupied later on, so double thanks. I hope many more will emerge as we enter Spring. However, I now read that researchers at the University of Reading have drawn attention to the risks of plants flowering earlier as a result of climate change, too early for the insects that pollinate them – a ‘temporal mismatch’. Worryingly my rosemary bushes have been in flower since December. On the other hand the risk from common bee predators such as bears, racoons and skunks is vanishingly small on my fourth floor roof garden in the southern borders of London.