The Wind and the Rain


I have a comfortable life, with secure sources of food and drinkable water, notwithstanding the understandable recent outcry about increased pollution in the nearby river Thames, and the likelihood of hosepipe bans given the national shortage of storage capacity. What follows is an account of recent weeks during which I’m aware that further afield devastating floods have affected many farming areas in Britain, and water security globally, in its many aspects, is becoming an ever more urgent issue.

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

…and hereabouts that has meant pots and containers carrying much more weight than usual at this time of year as the onslaught of wind and very heavy rains has continued through the Winter and now into Spring. Rotating the pots that I usually move around with ease, as various Spring bulbs spring into flower, has been very much harder this year. True I am a year older, and have been officially elderly for some while, but more telling, I think, is the excess water in the containers, confirmed by the puddles left behind any pot I do eventually manage to shift.

Meanwhile I try and ensure that glimpses of the balcony from indoors include anything in flower, and that the wider view is not obscured. For now this extends across South London and beyond, as far as edge of the North Downs Surrey Hills rising behind the unmissable white buildings of St Helier Hospital in clear view, on a clear day, from our bedroom or balcony. Once the tall deciduous trees closer by have formed a leafy enclosure the view is gone for a while, but for now the hope is to capture sight of the blossom further afield, as well as nearby, and make the most of the sparse colour immediately around.

Locally the problem of spillages into rivers is gaining more urgency and a (partial) solution is in sight as the Tideway super sewer is due to be opened next year, but more immediately a leak into the property underneath is ever more probable. Old construction methods, I have recently learnt, relied primarily on asphalt and exceptionally heavy slabs to ensure that the surface of the balcony provides protection from the elements for our neighbours on the floor below, while we can enjoy the outdoor space surrounding our corner property, bedecked as it is with plants for all seasons.

Modern materials are much lighter and have been used to resurface most of the building’s balconies and part of ours but not the main area. A combination of pressure on funds and the lockdown brought things to a juddering halt. So in order to lessen the load I have now jettisoned a number of containers; ones with rotten bottoms were taken to the tip, others to the allotment to be used for strawberry plants and herbs and yet more relocated to the already re-surfaced section of the balcony. But this may really amount to a drop in the ocean as the main contributor to the weight are the slabs and the largest containers remain in situ.

The work will need to be done, and in anticipation I need to be prepared to let common sense prevail as it would be a golden opportunity to swap my selection of clematis growing in tall, slim, containers, currently surrounding the main balcony, for the array of large awkward planters, with their spreading, ungainly contents (selecting roses for their beauty rather than their restrained growth habit seems rather unwise now) on the narrow pathway alongside the bedroom windows. Why not? It would mean anyone who needs access to this seldom visited sun-soaked east, south-east facing aspect of our territory would be able to approach it on foot rather than clambering along the parapet wall to avoid the prickly plants, or out of windows, currently my only access.

It would also mean an admission, to myself, that making all sorts of sensible future-proofing decisions in other aspects of my life, but continuing to negotiate the waist high windows in order to tend to the plants is rather foolish when another possibility might be forthcoming. I would have to relinquish the ritual of using a wooden chair as a step-ladder, propping open the sash window with a prepared length of wood (actually I have three of different lengths painted the same colour as the walls to avoid attracting too much attention) protecting the carpet from spillages with old towels kept for the occasion, and keeping my mobile phone to hand, but out of the way, while hoping no-one is watching this complicated manoeuvre involving first sitting on the window sill, then sliding my legs down onto the balcony (often a shoe, chosen for its age and flexibility, falls off at this point) while keeping my upper body in a crouched position so my head and shoulders can pass through the gap under the sash window and join my feet and legs on the balcony. It requires ingenuity and some flexibility, which I still have, but is a faintly ridiculous enterprise although probably less risky than climbing the tall step-ladder necessary to water some of my house plants.

My other worry through the Winter has been the effect, particularly on the larger Mediterranean plants, and most particularly on the olives, of effectively standing in cold water for months on end. I needn’t have worried. They have all flourished and the larger plants, now very definitely small trees, are producing healthy new growth much earlier than usual in my gardening year. It’s a fine line it seems, because according to ‘Olive Grove’, although olives need good drainage, they should be kept moist at all times when grown in a pot. I must remember to do more watering, as long as rain isn’t forecast. My hebe, on the other hand, has responded to the relatively mild winter by springing into flower again, after being bought last year at the helpful suggestion of a cousin to provide Autumn colour. Henceforth I will enjoy it whenever it puts on a show.

Here Comes the Sun

Recently, while enjoying lunch with friends, two of us were trying to reassure our ‘newer to gardening’ friend, with a newly constructed, multi layered city garden, and plants happily growing in different mediums and with various histories, that there are pleasures in learning a certain amount from gardening articles (of which there is no shortage), understanding certain principles (right plant, right place and exposed south facing sites won’t help shade loving plants to thrive), ‘free’ plants are available if you divide herbaceous plants (best in the Autumn but anytime is often possible) and killing plants is often harder than you think. Sadly though, with the best will in the world, although most plants manage to cope with neglect and other hardships some don’t.

I still pine for foxgloves although it dawned long ago that high rise living on a windy South facing terrace was a stretch too far for these woodland treasures, lovers of damp soil and dappled light. I also yearn for a shady spot to read or escape from the world. Actually the lockdown taught me that with the parasol up and securely anchored, clematis and rosemary providing additional cover and a few comfy cushions and a cup of tea, the bench offers a pleasurable escape with the opportunity to chat over the railings too if anyone’s around and I lift my head above the parapet. Not quite the same as the shade of the spreading walnut tree of my childhood, but a very close second best and not so far to carry the aforementioned cup of tea.

And if you are anywhere near the Brecon Beacons, Nant-y bedd is a woodland garden with foxgloves all around, ‘as focal points or flowering en masse’. More immediately, the hedgerows on either side of the narrow Cornish lanes, and particularly the stonewalls, are bedecked with purple pink foxgloves wherever you look in early Summer. Seemingly rather smaller and less vibrant than their woodland counterparts they are nevertheless a delight alongside wild garlic, cow parsley and much more, all of which, thrive at the base or in the damp crevices of the characteristic stone walls, often in very exposed positions.

My parents, but particularly my father, liked eating outdoors whenever possible and the lawn under the walnut tree was the designated spot for these alfresco meals. However,  without the ease of spilling out from indoors onto a paved area replete with table and chairs, it was a hazardous treck to and from the kitchen. The trolley carrying most of the food had to negotiate the journey through the house, across a veranda (which had enough space for one or two comfy chairs well protected from wind and rain but not a table and chairs) and down various steps, so I was less enthusiastic. Meanwhile all the heavy, cumbersome garden furniture had to be retrieved and set up for each meal to avoid any lasting damage to the lawn. I don’t actually remember anything about the food, except that there was no concession to eating outdoors so anything hot would quickly become cold, as the trolley pre-dated ‘hostess models’, but I do remember flapping table cloths when the wind got up and dashing indoors when the rain came. I also remember long leisurely conversations amongst the ‘grown-ups’ and rather more freedom to come and go for anyone younger.

Although my father was a firm believer in democracy it didn’t seem to apply when faced with our protests at the labour involved in setting up these overly complex traditional lunch-time meals, and the hazards we faced when opening out the heavy folding table or moving hot food down several steps. In retrospect I think I almost certainly gained a lot following his observations of the garden over lunch; what was working well, what needed pruning and so on, while my mother tried hard to introduce us to the songs of the various visiting birds. All of which was somewhat curtailed as we got older and more independent, and ended following one hot and humid night when my father, asleep on the camp bed set up on the veranda, woke in terror when our pet cat landed on top of him seeking company and comfort presumably, after which most of the outdoor furniture, including the ancient camp bed, was thankfully put into deep storage.

Flower Power

In the grounds down below resilient plants, many of them evergreens, occupy most of the shrubberies, with a designated wild flower area and some carefully chosen planting in key areas competing for attention, surrounded by majestic lime trees and poplars as well as London planes planted long ago. But at this time of year, when the snowy white cherry blossom has come and gone, it is the Judas Tree, Cersis siliquastrum (planted in 1953), with its deep pink flowers, some growing directly on the trunk, which is particularly captivating and a sure sign of Summer to come.


On the balcony however, I have to accept that while the rosemary, hellebores, various narcissi, grape hyacinths and early clematis are happily in flower, the roses are looking promising and new growth is all around, my choice of tulips has yet again been very disappointing. In the Autumn I veer between being overambitious and select tulips that are too tall, too extravagant and too dramatic in colour (magenta and orange doesn’t work close up but is probably magnificent from a distance) and being too mean, planting too few bulbs where more would look much prettier or make more impact. I’m also going to avoid dwarf wallflowers another year too. The plants are dwarf sized in height which is good for containers, but so are the flower spikes, so less good for containers if you want eye-catching flowers to attract your gaze. The combination is a faintly absurd picture with the tulip flowers towering over the wallflowers below – the beautiful terracotta pot deserves better so I have lined up a rose to be planted as soon as possible.

But there is good news too – my pomegranate, which I carefully pruned a few weeks ago, is full of healthy growth, but no flowers so presumably no fruit this year. I’ve successfully overwintered my trailing pelargonium ‘Surcouf‘, with its edible bright pink flowers, and pretty leaves, which I’m pleased about as this particular plant has now been outdoors for over two and a half years. And all the silver evergreens, like the olives, are thriving.


Many thanks for all your comments, which like other anticipated or impromptu gardening conversations, I enjoy and learn from, and space permitting put into practice.

Another Turn Around the Sun


I recently read a quote from Charles Lamb – ‘No-one ever regarded the first of January with indifference’. This resonated with me. This year the day was spent with family gathered, alongside more celebratory reasons, to pack up the family home of my very elderly step-mother. So a poignant day indeed, steeped in memories, with geo-politics and the appalling unfolding human tragedies, as well as the prospect of severe flooding more locally, touching all our lives too, albeit peripherally. Moments of reflection and anticipation mingled with more immediate feelings and associations, as well as the practical questions generated by the accumulation of books, pictures and other treasures with limits of space and mixed emotions hampering the task of selection.

*Meanwhile the balcony has begun the year eagerly. The silver and green evergreens are shining with health, bulbs are appearing and a few tulbaghia flowers are clinging on.

Emerging from Winter

The arrival of the watering can in the en-suite bathroom is an indicator of what is to come. It seems too early in the year, and the risk of cold and icy conditions returning too great, to turn on the outdoor water tap generously shared by my neighbour and providing the majority of the water supply later in the season for our top floor, 5th* floor, sun-soaked balconies. But the wind and now sun are rapidly drying out the smaller containers on my south facing balcony, leading off the main bedroom, so trips across the fitted carpet, negotiating slippers and other hazards will become a familiar pattern until any risk of frosts is past.

Rather than heading for the gym to lift weights, I’ve also been hauling various bags of compost up from the passage outside our bedroom window (which has provided over winter storage) through the bedroom and out through the doors onto the largest planted area. This manages to accommodate quite a wide range of plants which have overwintered remarkably happily, including a single rose which flowered on Christmas Day, together with enough space for two or three to be gathered together with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, in a space 10 metres x 2 metres to be exact.

* This is a recalculation – since the ground floor properties are duplex apartments, with three floors of the original school building above and above that our much more recent addition (which replaced the ornate and gabled original 5th floor lost to a WW11 incendiary bomb) it might be more accurate to think of the balcony or terrace, as you will, to be on the 5th floor not 4th as previously indicated. Whatever, we are quite high up so quite something to be visited by bees and birds on their peregrinations, and completely out of reach, unless helped by a thermal, for most butterflies.

After it seems weeks of heavy winds and more rain, earlier today the sun is bright and the winds have calmed down, so I have taken advantage of a peaceful moment to pamper some of the long suffering plants which the persistent winds have dried out, or which are habitually vulnerable to water shortage (that may or may not suit them) living as they do in the rain-shadow, under the roof’s projection. So, I have begun the gardening year as I hope to go on, enjoying the sights and sounds around while encouraging the most reliable plants into life and reminding myself of the plants that need to be pruned before too long, including roses, late flowering salvias and gaura and my recently acquired pomegranate. With gardening, as with cooking, sticking to the advice/recipe doesn’t come naturally but I’m keen to give my pomegranate the best possible chance of producing fruit, due in another year or so after a couple more seasons aloft. Rosemary is in flower, as are one or two hellebores, but other plants are struggling including the wallflowers that I planted reluctantly. My indifference apparently being contagious and the newer, dwarf, container friendly plants are decidedly un-floriferous.

Unexpected Visitor

For most of my life I have lived in areas in Southern England where grey squirrels are an everyday presence or pest depending on your point of view. Bold and athletic they may be, and skillful at accessing our dustbins certainly, but not wild creatures that encourage me to stop and stare – until last week when our neighbour spotted a white squirrel leaping from tree to tree. Later I noticed it running along the top of the fence separating us from the property next door.

The branches of the tall lime trees above intertwine so the wild life can circulate freely but closer to the ground the squirrel was briefly much more conspicuous in its white coat and evidently well-fed body.

Apparently mammalogists estimate that the odds of a female grey squirrel giving birth to an albino offspring are 1 in 100,000, so even more surprising that it has chosen to frequent the trees and gardens in our particular corner of South West London, with only a fence panel separating it from the A3 and the slow moving traffic travelling into the Metropolis.

And So It Begins

I don’t think I planned to have a planted space which gives a nod to sunnier, Southern climes although I’m very happy that is how things hereabouts have evolved. Particularly since the protective row of very elderly, and disease ridden horse chestnuts were chopped down, leaving the balcony fully exposed to wind and weather, as well as the heat of the sun, it is the mediterranean species which have risen to the challenge – olives, rosemary, bay, and now pomegranate, as well as lavender, thanks to the growing tips I was given in the comments section, thyme and lemon verbena, together with Convolvulus cneorum ‘silver bush’ and eucalyptus which while native to Australia also favours a mediterranean climate, as do the tulbaghia, native to South Africa, another region with a mediterranean climate. The Summer jasmine (a climber with white fragrant flowers in Summer, not to be confused with Winter jasmine with yellow flowers on bare stems) has also managed to hold on to its leaves over Winter and is happily stretching out along the railings filling in some gaps.

As I look out from my bedroom window, all these predominantly evergreen/silvergreen plants, some now grown into sizable small trees, are in good health and have together formed a well established and more or less complete green wall offering some protection to the rather more delicate plants yet to take the plunge and put in an appearance. I assume that the root systems of the aforementioned happy, healthy but generally heat seeking plants have found that the heat rising from the flat underneath (it is in reality a small and irregularly shaped roof terrace sitting on top of the property below, rather than a true balcony projecting from the building) to their liking and as long as the there are no problems with the integrity of the tiled surface of the roof terrace and no gaps in the membrane protecting the flat below, it is hopefully a win-win situation, with the plants reducing heat loss in Winter and providing a shaded, cooler surface in Summer.

Readers of previous posts will know that all is not always well in Paradise. Membranes perish and mortar ages.

Meanwhile if asked what my tip of the week would be – I would suggest that if you are planning to grow substantial plants with vigorous root systems, do ensure they are sitting on a suitable surface, well away from any nook or crevice that might tempt an adventurous root. Buddleia (the butterfly bush) are wonderful for butterflies as the name suggests, extremely happy growing alongside railway tracks and have striking flowers, although I quickly tire of their dead and dying flower heads. ‘Container’ varieties can now be bought, but in my view should only be planted well away from any tempting roof felt or other building material, as the consequential damage may lead to leaks. Our leaks (two in the last ten years) have been very distressing for all involved, but my plants, I was reliably informed, were not the cause of the problem although moving containers out of the way to gain access added to the difficulties and made the situation additionally fraught.

I have taken note and hopefully access is a little easier now in case of emergency.

And on a brighter note – if you like the possibility of year round fresh green leaves and flowers frrom April to December I recommend tulbaghia which come in all sorts of sizes and colour tones.

In some ways they are similar to, but less particualr than agapanthus which would struggle to cope with the cold damp winters and ferocious winds up aloft.


What to Keep, What to replace, What to Change?

I delight in the flowers of the cistus, or rock rose family, including Cistus purpureus, with dark pink flowers and a deep maroon centre. For a few precious days in early Summer the flowers contribute briefly to the visual delights offered by my mini-garden, coming and going as they do for a short while, before giving way to ever more ungainly growth. The leaves generally cling on through the Winter until the warmer days arrive again but the plant, which is not happy to be pruned hard, can quickly take over, leaving very little space for later flowering plants. For the moment I’m in a generous mood and as long as this year’s flowers are worth the wait it stays.

But the wallflowers are going – I do want the space for the rose I’ve already bought. And so are the two buddleia plants (see above) that I have tried to remove from the containers that they shared last year with gaura (which I will keep) and the Convolvulus cneorum (which I will also keep) but any signs of regrowth and I will quickly have another go at removing all signs of life. Buddleia are very persistent, but so am I in certain situations and this might be one.

I’ve also decided to give the thalictrum one more year. It has self seeded all around but the plants I bought originally are probably nearing the end of their lives.

I’m also rather unsure about the added value offered by my latest ornamental purchase – a contemporary weather vane designed to stand in a container. I think it would look better from afar but this is disappointingly impractical given the small scale of my planted plot. I failed to do any measuring before hand and as it measures 50cms across, and needs space to rotate, a suitable container is somewhat elusive. I also hadn’t thought about the risk of a storm force wind lifting it out of its apparently secure footing so it needs to be as far away as possible from any panes of glass. This would really mean being out of sight which rather defeats the object of the exercise although a soft landing would be better than being flung against closed, glazed doors.

While I dither about it’s future, the weather vane, with garden birds replacing the traditional cockerel, is in a temporary location, away from any glass, but in the way. And I’m not sure I like it anyway so I may have fallen foul of my tendency to browse on-line when the opportunity to be out and about, either on the balcony, or the allotment, is impractical. Another year I might stick to the safer option of stocking up on compost, and combine keeping up my exercise programme, which includes walking up 95 steps as often as I can face it, with moving the compost up from the car, and so be better prepared for the various demands of gardening as signs of Spring lure me outside.


The Rain it Raineth Every Day


In the late sixties I went to see a newly released feature film – Stanley Kubrick’s epic, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, but it’s the impact of the sensational opening music I particularly remember. Compositions by Richard Strauss, his namesake Johann Strauss II  and György Ligeti, with other classical works, were woven into the film score. From memory it was paired with a ‘B movie’ that I’ve never forgotten, a beautifully filmed, stark commentary on the Middle East, with striking images of a barren landscape, and an even starker message, that wars of the future, in the historic region of Palestine, would be fought over the scarce supplies of water.

The message never left me, but it was many years before the possibility of a lack of clean, secure water transmuted in my mind from the powerful stuff of surreal nightmares to the known catastrophe in the pictures coming from the region today. Against the background of poverty and water equality, and long contested control of water resources in the region (largely from the Mountain Aquifer) today is added the unimaginable horror of rapidly diminishing supplies of clean water and proper sanitation for hundreds of thousands, as the wrenching consequences of the initial offensive play out.

Meanwhile, in many areas, largely in the North and West of the British Isles, the ravages of Storm Babet have caused devastation with loss of life and livelihoods as well as damage to local infrastructure, affecting thousands of people and properties, on a scale that is largely unknown in my edge of city location in South West London, not far from the banks of the Thames, and protected for now by Teddington Lock upstream and the Thames Barrier downstream.

The Naming of Parts

As I’ve mentioned previously, my balcony is more accurately a small roof garden or terrace from an architectural point of view, since the main planted area is a flat space, above the property below, rather than an elevated platform attached to a vertical wall, which would be (apparently) more correctly called a balcony. Either way, it owes its existence to the redevelopment of a pre-existing Edwardian secondary school which had lost its roof to an incendiary bomb early in the Second World War. The original building had no outdoor space associated with the top floor of the building, although it did have some rather ornate and ambitious stone flourishes, including, rather unexpectedly, a cupola.

Today the building’s top floor is much plainer, with an extensive roof of industrial construction, but for those of us living aloft there is enough outdoor space for a miniature garden with all its attendant pleasures and disappointments together with the delicate trade off between time, space and planting conditions and hoped for, but more ambitious creations. Moreover, the smaller plants have the benefit of shelter provided by the red-brick surround together with warmth from the flat below, providing, fortuitously, growing conditions which suit many Mediterranean plants and silvery evergreens.


Weather Charts

A few years ago I went with others to see a play called ‘Pressure’ which focused on the complex task of understanding weather patterns, local factors and the likelihood of favourable conditions for the D-Day landings. Pressure charts and differences of opinion between the might of the American weather experts and the Scottish meteorologist, James Stagg, familiar with the variables over the Channel and with very precise knowledge of the complexities of British weather (and with his own domestic pressures and anxieties) were the backdrop to President Eisenhower’s final decision to give the go-ahead to the risky venture, persuaded as he was by James Stagg that there was a narrow window of opportunity.

Windows of opportunity for watering are my stock in trade on the roof garden as I need to water by hose or watering can all the containers in periods of drought, the containers nearest the building and under the overhang whenever they have missed out on steady rainfall and all the plants also need feeding periodically by hand when I add slightly random amounts of seaweed based plant food to the water. *I avoid watering on windy days and I don’t want to water when rain is due, to avoid unnecessary wastage of time and water. However, in spite of having a range of guides – the BBC weatherman or woman with descriptive meteorological charts, an indoor/outdoor thermometer and rain gauge, access to rain radar patterns etc, none are as accurate as James Stagg. I continue to avoid watering when I think rain is due although it often doesn’t arrive, or water dutifully and find rain is on its way. However, the plants that do well up aloft are very forgiving. I assume that damp loving plants, such as dropmore purple which shouldn’t do well on a high rise balcony but does, find the extremes of overwatering or drying out to their liking, and not so different from their usual marginal positions, and don’t really mind the high winds either.

*I think you can buy small portable reservoirs which are then attached to hoses so you water and feed without the aid of watering cans but in truth I prefer to feed while hand-watering.

I have also grown my first ridge cucumber on the balcony. On the allotment, in contrast, they arrive in battalions and it isn’t possible to keep up with their rapid growth and the rate of productivity, so inevitably there is wastage as the larger, older cucumbers quickly become bitter. I arranged to pick this single cucumber with our three year old neighbour who is very keen on harvesting and was also looking forward to the not very far off moment when the butternut squashes on the allotment were also ready. I’m a bit more ambivalent, as the squashes store well, unlike the cucumbers, but are also extremely productive and I still have some of last year’s harvest in the deep-freeze waiting to be turned into soup. Fortunately I do not feel inclined to experiment with growing butternut squash up climbing frames on the balcony (as encouraged by one of my cousins) as they would undoubtedly enjoy the higher levels of sunlight and take over.  But I did take the precaution of growing a smaller variety this year having been rather defeated by the weight of last year’s crop and the challenge of cleaning, preparing, cooking and reheating numerous squash dishes.

Mellow Fruitfulness

Once upon a time I lived for a short while in Notting Hill (as a friend put it, at a time before Hugh Grant arrived) and at a time when antique dealers and book shops were more plentiful than today. Notting Hill is in West London and as someone else once said of me and it is almost true, with the exception of many happy years in the West Country, I have lived in many places, all of them in South West London. I’m anticipating that my current rooftop residence is my final roost but I am a bit of a gypsy and wouldn’t completely discount another move as long as outside space was included. I begin to wither a bit if I don’t have the chance to enjoy the alchemy of plant and potting compost at close quarters, and as I learn a lot en route it’s an occupation I’m reluctant to surrender to the vicissitudes of growing older. But container gardening does have its very real downsides, not least because it doesn’t bring any of the satisfactions of planting and planning for future generations. However, there are many compensations and my olive trees have grown so well this Summer that they seem determined to stay put, which is fine as we are too.

If anyone is wondering what trees to plant in a container on an exposed, windy, South facing spot I would always recommend olives, which are extremely robust, and have outlived many of the other large shrubs/small trees I’ve tried to grow. They are beautiful too and covered with fruit at this time of year, all of which comes as a surprise to visitors more used to seeing them around the Mediterranean or who have tried growing them in damper parts of the country. On a smaller scale thulbughia come in a range of sizes and leaf forms and will flower till Christmas, so don’t be put off  by the slight whiff of onions as you brush past.

Over time I’ve managed to introduce, on a very modest scale, seasonal interest and permanent planting, but Autumn colour – leaves, fruit or berries, has eluded me. My latest attempt has been to plant euonymus europaeus, the Common Spindle, in a very large container where it has grown happily, added to the green screen round the balcony all Summer and then dropped its leaves without any change of colour or pretty fruit; I blame the wind. Surprisingly it was the leaves of the dropmore purple which have provided the best Autumn colour this year, but rather tucked away out of sight. The flowerspikes had been visible from mid-Summer above the surrounding greenery, which unfortunately rather masked the lovely Autumn leaves, until it in turn withered and wasted away.

Shopping List

Dropmore purple: surprisingly good aloft although the lower stems are a bit uninteresting until the leaves change colour in late Summer, so possibly best in a container with bushier, smaller plants

Lavender: mine have done better than previously thanks to the advice earlier in the year in the comments section, and could look good under dropmore purple next year although the lavender’s preference for drier conditions may be a challenge

More salvias: great in late Summer and still in flower (Amistad is a lovely deep purple but too tall for the scale of planting hereabouts so I favour Salvia viridis “Blue Monday’) as well as roses and less vigourous clematis

Rosemary: my oldest plant is getting very leggy and starting flowering a few weeks ago which I took to be an ominous portent of its demise, but as recently as this week the bees were still visiting although, understandably, not in very large numbers

Erigeron karvinskianus: as many as possible as these pretty daisies self-seed and co-habit happily around

Variegated trailing ivy: which also has beautiful Autumn colour

And to avoid

Nepeta (catnip): which gets too leggy and mildewy early in the Summer and doesn’t actually seem to attract as many pollinators as I want and expect, and we have no visiting cats to enjoy it either

and maybe

Dahlias: I’m not sure. They are lovely plants and come highly recommended by old friends (a great gardener and cherished friend) and younger relative, whose dahlias are magnificent at the end of the Summer. So is his wisteria but I’ve long given up competing on that front. On the balcony dahlias are rather bulky, without being very interesting, for rather too much of the year.

PS Heavy rain continues to add further misery for many in the British Isles, but back in the dry days of Summer,  the cucumber plant, in spite of being in a very restricted pot on the balcony, kept us and our neighbours happily supplied with cucumbers for quite a while, so I will certainly try again. And my buddleia, a carefully selected dwarf variety, suitable for containers, which I fell out of love with early on as it was much more aggresive than I hoped it would be (so hacked it back) has now crept back into growth and flower production and is a really lovely late addition to the balcony.

And you might try visiting YouTube if you are interested in the original score for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.

Salad Days


Friday 16th June 9.16am and I will shortly be on my way through the South London streets to have coffee with a younger friend. Meanwhile I have been dead-heading and shuffling pots around on the balcony – greatest effort and attention being to rotate a dwarf eucalyptus, in ‘lollipop’ form, so that we will have more benefit from the shelter it provides and be able to enjoy looking at the beautiful glaucous leaves close at hand. Like all the plants on this south facing site the eucalyptus has been growing towards the sun leaving only the bare skeleton in clear view.

The Passage of Time

I always enjoy showing friends the balcony – it doesn’t take long and I usually learn something new about some of the plants I’m showing off. At the height of the Summer, as the leaves and flowers tumble out of the pots further reducing usable space for moving around, in truth if three or four are gathered together it’s more of an intimate huddle than a stroll around. And it’s deceptive as the plants that are happy are very happy and the failures of yesteryear are easily forgotten as pots can be replanted or stacked up out of sight.

The standard olives continue to flourish, gaura is in flower, as is the lemon verbena (the oldest a woody specimen four foot high with flower spikes loved by visiting insects) and I’m beginning to spot the spikes of the dropmore purple (lythrum virgatum) coming into flower, which I read is a ‘spectacularly colourful plant for watersides, pond banks and woodland borders where the soil is reliable moist’. Like the pretty thalictrum delavayi, whose origins lies in the meadow rues of damp water margins, these pretty purple flowers spread around and self seed across the balcony not-withstanding the intermittent watering and scorching heat. Even in very small spaces horticultural surprises are possible.

If you are a member of the RHS you may have seen the article ‘Summer in the City’, in the July edition of ‘The Garden’ magazine, featuring balconies, rooftops and courtyards which have been turned into lush urban oases. They are all much grander, more spacious and carefully considered spaces than my over-crowded, and occasionally oppressive, tiny, tiled plot. But nevertheless there are often good ideas to pinch and hints to follow; clearly installing a sunken trampoline is never going to work on our roof top space, and I feel lucky to have one seated area aloft, let alone two, which with the addition of some comfy cushions, and shaded from the sun, is indeed heavenly.* But what all these spaces share, ours included, is an emphasis on all year round interest and the importance of the view looking out and across the borrowed views, whether of neighbours’ tall trees or the city edge beyond. I also try to have a few strategically placed plants to soften the view of the newer glass-sided school next door which has flat roof spaces but sadly no roof gardens as yet.

*I have learnt from experience that when the parasol is open, it is best to thread a piece of thin rope through the spokes and attach it securely to one of the arms of the bench. The base is rooted to the ground but the risk of the canopy taking off is quite high, so a certain amount of ingenuity is required to ensure our outdoor space is reasonably functional as well as a secluded destination in which to linger amongst the sights and scents close at hand. All this appeals to me somewhat but I have been critised for being more interested in dead-heading the roses within reach of the bench, rather than concentrating on precious moments over coffee to catch up and plan for the day.

Moreover, if you are interested in city views, and have time to spare, a pre-planned visit to the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ building in Fenchurch Street, in the City of London, is well worth considering. Tickets are free but required, the security checks a reminder of travels further afield as conveyor belts and scanners have to be negotiated, and the gardens on the top three storeys of the 35 storey building are somewhat over-hyped I would argue. But the opportunity to view London, as far as the city edge and the green belt, as you take in the sensational 360 degree views from different perspectives, is one that will stay in my mind for a very long time – with the bonus that you also have a very good view of other roof-top gardens on lower buildings as well as the tree-lined streets and green spaces and squares down below.

There is also a chance to look at the Thames winding its path out to the sea. If you enjoy watching the world go by, you can also observe the pleasantly hypnotic, but complicated navigation of passengers and goods up and down the water. I became absorbed in the slow progress of a barge loaded with aggregate, perhaps heading for the building works at Craven Cottage (Fulham Palace’s football ground) which apparently have been undertaken with a pledge to bring in materials by water rather than add further distress to the road system in South West London.

Scents in the City

Sunday 25th June 6.26am and I wake up to a perfect Summer morning. Already the southerly breeze has filled the south facing bedroom with the scents from the balcony – certainly salvias, possibly lavender (much happier this year after following the advice last year on the comments’ section about caring for lavender plants) and I think there is still a lingering but dwindling contribution from the roses. For a few fleeting moments time, before the day creeps in, it’s possible to feel that all’s right in the world.

The balcony is an enviable experimental garden, with beauty and bees aplenty but I’m no stranger at this time of year to envious longings for the greener grass the other side of the fence, to be found in the larger, less windy, green spaces around.

It’s also quite sobering to be faced with the delights (I think of eating outside with friends, enough space to plant a newly discovered rose, the chance to wander at will enveloped by greenery or planning a new bed or border) that a bigger outdoor space would offer – but open views with space all around was our choice and continues to be our pleasure.

Saturday 15th July 11.30am and I’m driven back by the 40mph gusts that have devastated the balcony sending pots and plants flying. Down the road the Wimbledon women’s lawn tennis final will be held under the roof because of the ferocious winds, and having watered all the plants within reach of the windows (from the relative calm of the bedrooms) I too take cover and resist the urge to bring some order to the balcony. However, a heavy thud which can only mean another plant has been blown over, in time means I need to take action.

A week or two later and a slow, wet journey back from the West Country is accompanied by fleeting anxieties about the state of the plants on the balcony. House-plants, too, evoke a certain amount of concern but replacing house plants can be quite fun and my attachment to any particular plant isn’t nearly as strong as my deep attachment to some of the long-standing plants outside.

Such is the high level of anticipatory anxiety, and the potential for disappointment, that preparing for time away starts some time ahead – how long to go away and which time of year to least disadvantage both the allotment and the balcony? Kind neighbours and others have stepped in over the years but over or under watering is a risk and I’m fussy. So on the whole lengthy Summer holidays are best avoided and trips further afield are carefully scheduled. I also realised somewhat late in the day that the new requirements for renewing passports, or rather the new requirements to have time in hand before your passport expires, means planning ahead on all fronts before travelling to other European countries, so no bad thing.

Meanwhile back to the issue of plant care while away. My tried and tested method is to move as many plants as possible into the centre of the balcony so increasing the possibility of catching any passing rain. Huddling together avoids evaporation too. I then give everything a good soak. I used to do something similar with house plants, leaving them in the bath on a very wet towel, having watered (or overwatered) each plant but the success rate wasn’t very high and these days I rely on house plants considerable capacity to recover if you can bear the time it might take, or find a replacement if all else fails.

It’s difficult to know the beneficial tipping point between shopping to support local nurseries and increasing the carbon footprint of the balcony, already quite high as container grown plants often have a shorter life-span than plants growing in the ground. But the bees and other pollinators are still visiting aloft in good numbers and the plants deflect the heat of the sun away from the external walls.

Sunday 13th August 1.38pm or 13.38 for those who think in terms of the 24 hour clock. Would the one o’clock news on Radio 4 keep it’s ratings if it was to be known as the 13.00 news on Radio 4?

The last few weeks has seen a succession of high temperatures and high rainfall all accompanied by high winds. It’s disheartening when it comes to gardening aloft as the sound of large containers crashing into other planters is one to try and avoid at all costs.

With that thought in mind I recently wedged a tall container between a bench, wall and other containers, and mounted it on a three-wheeled pot stand for ease of moving it aside when access was needed. It turns out that the large container was lighter than it might have been as the battle to keep everything well watered in spite of the wind was one I had already lost. The pot stand somehow got caught by the wind it such a way that it revolved in ever more urgent ways until it had thrown off the pot itself which crashed onto the smaller planters underneath but fortunately didn’t itself come to much harm or do lasting damage.

I have jettisoned the pot stand.

and finally……….

Given the destructive part wind and weather has played in so many global tragedies, or heartache closer to home, my mostly manageable challenges are of course on a comparatively minuscule scale. However, after three years of planting without the protection of the row of elderly, now deceased tall trees alongside, some further adjustments might be needed next year. This may be a frustrating and somewhat futile endeavour, along the lines of rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic, but I am sure I will learn a lot along the way and in time, hopefully, have a bit more wind protection for the smaller plants and the wind-sensitive parasol.

In the meantime, the olives continue to grow, produce fruit and flourish, the pomegranate (see photo) has also flourished undeterred by a few wind-scorched leaves and the scabious, thulbaghia and salvias continue to look lovely intermingling with the overgrown lemon verbena (a favourite) which will continue to attract bees and other insects well into the shorter days. But two months can be a very long time in the life of a plant and the ‘lollipop’ eucalyptus has gone. The already stressed and pot bound plant having eventually succumbed to the vagaries of the weather.

However the roses, which unlike the eucalyptus are unphased by the weather, do look particularly beautiful at this time of year – less blowsy, with petals that quickly become papery and little fragrance, but a delight and as the star jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides) has put on a lot of growth over the Summer it will be commandeered as a first contribution to the revised wind break.


My mother used to reassure me, particularly at Christmas time, that the best things often came in small parcels, which at the time I never found entirely convincing, but now I count myself lucky indeed to have a small patch, under the skies, to call my own.

Cautionary Tales


Catching Up

This is the time of year when I rummage for cardboard boxes, clothes pegs and bubblewrap in order to make a temporary cold frame on the balcony to raise some cucumber and butternut squash seedlings for the allotment. The list was longer once upon a time but we’ve given up growing sweetcorn as the birds and other wild life, foxes perhaps, always got there before we did and my skills and patience only stretch to large seeds producing rich rewards. However, the balcony takes precedence and it’s only when a few replacement plants have been planted, the detritus of Winter has been cleared away and Summer is peeping through and I have, if not a plan then certainly a few ideas for the year ahead, that I contemplate nurturing some seeds. Then, once it is consistently warm enough to attract insects and some bird life to our green oasis (a Great Tit arrived early this morning but left before I could take it’s picture as it enjoyed some tasty insect life) I judge it is time to dust off my ‘Blue Peter’ skills and raise some seeds.

Friends tell me that it’s been a very bad Winter for balcony and other high rise spots for overwintering pots. Mine did look very dismal for several weeks earlier in the year but that seems to be a thing of the past, and my roses and pelargoniums, as well as the smaller tulbaghia, which were in flower up to the end of January, are now ready to have another go. So I feel particularly lucky as the balcony is looking very lush with several of the medium sized shrubs, including the roses and clematis, showing indications of being wonderfully prolific this year and all the very small pots (that irritated those who like more space underfoot) a thing of the past, or at least re-distributed to some of the older, multi-occupancy containers.

Living in a converted Edwardian school, which in the language of estate agents has been divided up for contemporary living, involves accommodating to a number of quirky features, particularly in the communal areas, including the inter-connected balconies. This is very useful if you have forgotten or lost your front door key but have left your balcony door open. For a while we felt we were living in a corridor as neighbours and their guests came through our flat and past the plants obstructing the narrow pathway between our two properties in order to get to their balcony, before retreating indoors in varying states of embarassment and awkwardness. The plants (a well established olive and an elderly pittosporum tenuifolium with dark bronze leaves) didn’t mind at all but there was more disgruntlement all round when an unfortunate, rather large, worker for one of the ‘superfast’ fibre broadband suppliers took the external route to reach us in order to position a new cable for a property three floors below. A knock on the door would have been easier all round.

Meanwhile as the building has lawn on all sides, alongside car parking, bin areas and various exits and entrances, the unmown grass (it being no-mow May) is a delight abounding with flowers, insects and other visual delights.

Companion Planting

In the early days of our allotment years in the West Country, thanks to a friend who had introduced us, we shared a plot with a very enthusiastic Winter digger. I chipped in from time to time with ideas which didn’t go down particularly well with either of the more traditional gardeners whose plot it really was. The elder tree above our heads, with its abundant flower bearing branches, was considered a nuisance since its branches tumbled down and made reaching the shed a real challenge, and I didn’t have the confidence to turn the flowers into cordial, lacking in those far-flung years access to Google and I’m sure any number of suggestions to turn the flowers into nectar if not of the gods then certainly a drink to be enjoyed by friends and family. I do have a close friend who in those distant days did make delicious elderflower cordial so why didn’t I ask her for advice I wonder, although on reflection it might have been because I was rather surprised by the amount of sugar involved.

I also failed to convince my partner in life, if not on the allotment, that companion planting should be embraced to cut down on chemicals and keep black-fly at bay. Actually the argument about chemicals was rather spurious as it was a law-abiding chemical free allotment site but I didn’t manage to make the case for planting nasturtiums to attract the black-fly away from the broadbeans either – I couldn’t find an answer to his response along the lines that the nasturtiums were probably actually attracting greater numbers of black-fly to the plot. In the end as the nasturtiums had spread beyond their allotted territory, and even I could see they had become a nuisance, both I and the nasturtiums withdrew.

However, I did succeed in planting what might now be called a wildflower border (or patch) which was a real, if somewhat unrecognised success, the happy outcome being an abundance of nigella (love in the mist) dominating the scene. The widespread roots of the elder meant the ground underneath and around was unsuitable for growing vegetables but the irregular surface happily embraced the nigella and other seeds and because of the slightly sloping site, the sun’s rays managed to penetrate any leafy twigs that survived after the heavy pruning necessary to ensure access to the shed itself.

But times change and we no longer grow broadbeans as the success rate has been so low, and instead of the emphasis on digging, an interest in no-dig growing has reached the planning and discussion stage for this year’s planting programme, if not the allotment plot itself. To this end I am bagging up all my spent compost from the pots on the balcony that I want to re-plant and they are making the journey a few miles south to support the no-dig venture.

Moss Gardens

I have no idea where and when the idea of giving my mother a moss garden at Easter came from. Needless to say my efforts bore very little relationship in scale, meaning or design to the famed moss gardens of Japan.

Somewhat incongruously, and strangely evocative, Moss Garden is also the title of one of David Bowie’s instrumental tracks on Side 2 of Heroes (1977).  ‘Strange and serene’ it’s available to listen to on YouTube and may be familiar to fans of the multi-faceted singer. I heard it for the first time four days ago, thanks to a Google search which segwayed from moss gardens to Bowie playing the koto, a Japanese string instrument. I recommend a listen – you might be surprised.

  • Step 1 involved asking my mother for a suitable plate (this was all on a very small scale) and she would produce a medium sized enamel plate, actually I think the only sized enamel plate we had, which was generally used for the cat’s food at this stage in the evolution of our family’s life. Of course this request, met as it was without any detailed questioning by my mother rather took away the element of surprise as she knew the plate was heading outside.
  • Step 2 was finding the essential moss. From memory this was not a problem as we had various outbuildings with moss aplenty on the somewhat dilapidated roof tiles and I think I just picked the miniature humps up from the ground below, perhaps dislodged by birds or less well adhered to the roof as warmer weather tended to dry out the moss.
  • Step 3 involved finding pretty stones to create what has now somewhat ubiquitously come to be known as the hard landscape. We had a gravel drive, small brick walls with plenty of plants filling the gaps between the larger stones and informal brick or crazy paving paths going in various directions and in varying stages of repair. The plate was only about 9ins (or 23cms for younger readers) in diameter so sourcing enough pretty small stones wasn’t difficult.
  • Next came the pretty decorative contributions – several grape hyacinth stems picked very carefully so that no-one would notice I’d robbed the prolific patches of deep blue, and primroses with much more delicate stems. These were all threaded in and around the mounds of moss, and I think the occasional small chocolate egg, saved from my Easter bounty, was included. I should explain at this point that this was something I planned for and thought about for a while but didn’t actually assemble until I could roam around the garden after lunch.
  • And on these sunny Easter Sunday afternoons, for perhaps two or three years, my creation complete, I would then search for my mother carefully carrying my offering. It’s afterlife remains a bit of a mystery – I imagine that having watered it a bit, before putting the plate on a cool windowsill in the scullery, it wasn’t long before it was time to return the plate to its customary use. The moss garden never made it beyond the kitchen but as the kitchen was largely my mother’s domain (when she wasn’t curled up on the sitting room floor, fully absorbed, with her book propped up on a comfy chair, rather than the other way round) I think I was pleased to see it from time to time as I went in and out of the garden.

Looking Ahead

With signs of promise all around I’m wondering how well my pomegranate will do although I feel somewhat humbled by someone I know who’s grown one from seed (bought with other fruit at her local green-grocer’s last year) which is already nearly as tall as mine. I’m also reconciled to life without an E Nicolii, a small variety of eucalyptus that grows happily in pots for a few years before either outgrowing its surroundings or failing to fulfil our requirement for all the larger plants to contribute to the wind break above the perimeter wall, helping to ensure that a cup of coffee or glass of wine can be happily enjoyed across the threshold. As a particularly spindly specimen, without a compensating ornamental leafy display above, it had to go – always sad but not completely unwelcome as the balcony is already rather crowded and most plants will put on more growth over the next few months.

I’m also hoping to visit the Sky Garden sometime soon with the help of the District Line which offers a door to door service – it’s located over three storeys, upwards from the 35th floor of the ‘Walkie Talkie’ in Fenchurch Street, London, free to garden lovers, with spectacular views, gardens lush with South African and Mediterranean plants and an open air terrace – it’s been recommended by a close family member and sounds irresistable. I might be able to pick up planting tips to help with wind defences at height although as it towers 30 storeys above my high rise plot (I expect with a budget to match) the challenges may be rather different.

Whisper Words of Wisdom


The Stuff of Dreams

Not so long ago a visitor to the balcony was unimpressed with the state of health of one of my olives. In other locations around my modest, intricate and compact planting spaces olive trees with different histories have come into my life as gifts or spur of the moment purchases, and flourished, or at least done surprisingly well in their restricted and exposed positions. But outside the bedroom windows is a treasured heirloom with a provenance that I have long forgotten. It has occupied a particularly heavy, and I think splendid terracotta pot, in a prime position, for the last eight or nine years having been transplanted from a much smaller container, and it has never thrived. Not quite an eyesore but certainly not a thing of beauty, prompting my visiting friend to say, without flinching, that he would get rid of it. So the question is, why haven’t I? And more particularly why do I give it more attention than almost any other plant? I do realise that there may be a link between my endeavours and the olive’s lack of enthusiasm, and I do feel somewhat guilty as I think I neglected to give it a good start when I transferred it from its original container – laziness, haste or poor quality planting medium may all have played a part. But for some reason it seems particularly hard to remove this struggling plant, which I suspect in reality will not be too difficult to do as I am pretty sure it has a poorly developed root system.

I have wondered why I can’t let go of this poor example of a robust and life-enhancing species, without really being quite sure of the answer. I am usually more decisive and often ruthless as each plant in a small planted space needs to pay its way; its very existence depending on bringing seasonal charm (ideally with nectar and pollen), making a contribution to the wind-break so we are not beaten back indoors when high winds throw up dust and compost, edible so all herbs are welcome (and I even have the prospect of pomegranates when my miniature shrub is robust enough to carry fruit) or has an interesting story to tell (horticultural or personal).

However, thanks to my friend’s straightforward acknowledgement that it’s time to get rid of the struggling olive, I have had some embryonic thoughts about what might replace it. It’s tempting to get another olive but they are becoming somewhat ubiquitous hereabouts, outside restaurants and on balconies being favoured spots, so the next question is ‘will this be an opportunity for some seasonal interest or an evergreen shrub?’ The first thing that came to mind was the silver leaved, white flowered, cold tolerant (to -9 C) Convolvulus cneorum. I have one already which enjoys our local conditions, so I might double up. Reading on, and with apologies to the readers who would rather skip over the Latin references, I learn that the Latin specific epithet cneorum is a word of Greek origin referring to a small olive-like plant – who knew?

I’m also considering re-planting the struggling olive with due care and attention in another planter in a different location – out of the way so it will hopefully just get on and do it’s own thing. As the location I have in mind is on a very narrow pebble covered connecting pathway, this will involve lowering a new planter out of a side window, followed by bags of compost, broken crocks etc, clambering out of the window (the sill being about 90cms or 3ft above floor level so no good with stiff joints) asking for help with the plant itself, and a watering can, and then making the return journey. As with Holy Matrimony no-one should enter into this endeavour lightly* so I will wait for a fine day and hope for a win-win outcome. Sadly however, as with marriage, the hoped for  outcome, a happy union of plant and position, may not be as secure and creative as any early promise suggests.

All in all, and after a number of failed experiments, the roof garden has grown into a  welcome sanctuary – especially suited for lingering on balmy days, whatever the season.

*Book of Common Prayer – marriage service

Branching Out

Once Christmas is over and the business of taking down decorations finished for another year I start collecting egg boxes. I don’t often eat eggs but luckily I live with someone whose idea of a happy start to the day is an egg, poached or scrambled, but how to decide I often wonder. To an observer the thought process is very unclear. Meanwhile, I try to stick to the same breakfast menu to avoid an early morning dilemma. Nevertheless, and anxious to help, last year I was very systematic and we accumulated an impressive stack of boxes. Unfortunately they were never used as intended and instead I added them to the compost bins, carefully breaking them up into a rottable size.

We were very late buying seed potatoes for the allotment, the intended occupants of the vacated egg boxes, with chitting being the aim. So unchitted the potatoes were planted and did well. I think we bought late earlies and main crop. They were planted separately, but unlabled, and arrived and were stored together so we didn’t know which was which but it didn’t seem to matter. The only real problem being lack of rain (and watering) so they were all on the smallish side but nevertheless lasted well into December. So for reasons I’m struggling to fully understand this year we have already bought seed potatoes (first earlies and main crop I’m told) which are required to be chitted. The new planting arrangement also involves one planting strip for each variety, no mixed strips, and no fun guessing which variety is which. A pastime I may be overrating somewhat but I’m sorry there will be fewer egg boxes for the compost.

Meanwhile the charms of our butternut squash are beginning to wane. Some still adorn the tops of the kitchen cupboards decoratively peering down, between trailing house plants, others have been chopped and boxed and still occupy the deep freeze, but less is more I’m beginning to think. However, if like me you still have butternut squash on the menu, and you are searching for a particularly easy pasta and butternut recipe, you might try Roasted squash and red onion pasta  – incredibly easy and surprisingly delicious although you can’t avoid the tiresome business of removing the skin, not essential but preferable I think, particularly when you are cooking rather elderly veggies. I also added crispy sage leaves which looked pretty and tasted good too.

All of which brings me on to the unavoidable topic of aging.

Trips Around the Sun

Having completed another trip around the sun not so long ago (so much easier to contemplate that getting another year older) I have been dwelling on the subject of aging and the inevitable challenges of continuing to garden whatever the space. As I have mentioned before, once upon a time I thought about joining a Local Council run project whereby volunteers are paired with residents who need help with their gardens. In this scenario I saw myself as the one providing gardening knowledge and assistance. Now a few years on I’m closer to being the person in need of assistance, but not yet. Fortunately I can still lift, push, tug, snip etc when necessary and have enough ingenuity and stubbornness to cope with most of the gardening challenges that my high rise space throws up.

But I am making some choices consistent with an imagined simpler planting scheme and fewer containers. All of which involves sourcing larger planters (weight always a consideration) and jettisoning the small pots which will be conveniently available as crocks when crocks are needed. As with the egg boxes, they can be broken up before being recycled for ballast and drainage. For my bigger plants/small trees I favour lightweight steel ‘Dolly tub’ planters apparently finished to have a ‘traditional look based on the tubs used in Victorian wash-houses‘. They suit the balcony and even when full of compost and planted up with olives or other plants can be manoeuvred around with a combination of rolling and pulling. They come in different shapes and sizes so its best to do some measuring before ordering.

I am strongly in favour of supporting our local garden centre, which has recently changed hands after an anxious time when we thought it might be replaced by housing, the fate of  many other city garden centres, but I have only found this type of large, light weight container on line.

I ordered two such tall containers, one for the main balcony, one for outside the study/bedroom hoping that when planted up it will screen out some of the Summer sun as this room gets the full force of the morning sunshine. The containers arrived by coincidence at the same time as three bare root Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Black Barlow’ which I ordered several months ago and had rather forgotten about. They needed planting straightaway alongside plenty of other early season work – what could possibly go wrong?

The containers were transported in strong card board boxes which can hopefully be re-cycled to good effect and I salve my conscience, given the road miles involved, with the knowledge that the balcony is a miniature haven for wild life. But more immediately problematic was and is the question of size.

The container needed to be passed through a window. The computer and associated paraphernalia had to be moved aside first, together with a narrow desk. An old towel became a temporary floor covering and a reasonably sturdy wooden chair acted as a foot stool. I then, as mentioned above, passed everything I might need through the window, using other planters as temporary shelf space, after which I intended to clamber out ready to receive the planter. Only then did I register that I hadn’t measured the aperture with the sash window open. These pots dent easily, so having belatedly measured both the gap and the girth of the recently arrived container I could see it would be a very tight squeeze. My loyal undergardener up aloft (but not on the allotment when roles are reversed) is someone who would have measured before ordering, and might have drawn attention to my failure to do so, but I was luckier than I deserved and we managed to pass it through the gap without mishap, keeping the container exactly horizontal as we did so.

It only just made it but in doing so without a hitch somewhat undermined my resolve to measure in future. Not something to be proud of but old habits, or failings, die hard.

Green Shoots

The days are drawing out and plants and shrubs in this part of South West London are perking up. The rosemary bushes are in flower although any cold spells prevent any potentially grateful bumble bee from venturing out. The first flowers emerged tentatively last November which is no longer a surprise as the flowering patterns of many plants have changed. As it is in the wider horticultural world so on our roof garden, with the potential risk of supply and demand being out of sync.

My hellebores are now on the wane but in pots and planters all around green shoots are appearing, to be followed by the flowering stems of narcissi and tulips in due course. Clematis shoots are visible and I hope some snakeshead fritillaries will have survived their rather unnatural living conditions, as they have done in other years.

And the prospect of many happy hours gardening again is a very consoling thought. My long suffering partner through life and its challenges continues to tolerate the numerous bags of compost and grit that make their way through our bedroom to the outdoor space beyond, and until the surrounding greenery comes into full leaf we can enjoy 270 degree views; by craning your neck as you lean out of the east facing windows Canary Wharf comes into view while to the West, in optimum light conditions, the edge of the Chilterns are visible.

Fortunate indeed.

But at the moment it is the rolling fields of Cornwall that provide the view – in sunshine and through mist, well away from city sounds. From time to time, and particularly at this time of year when the countryside is waking up, and lambs are venturing into the fields, the countryside is where I hope to be for a few days, before returning like a homing pigeon to my customary roost.


Then and now

Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire

St Issey, Cornwall



















Bird on a Wire


Adjusting the Sails*

A friend, himself a serious and very knowledgeable gardener, once told me that he thought that gardens begin to look weary after seven years or so and then need a fundamental overhaul. For us the ‘overhauling’ has been largely out of our hands as one by one the row of elderly trees that protected the balcony from the fiercest of the sun’s heat, or the winter winds, have died back and been removed. Other mighty trees: limes, London planes and ash still circle us but not with the intimate connection and protection that first attracted us to high rise living atop a converted Edwardian school on the Southern edge of London, which for a number of years now has been home.

The outdoor space, not quite a roof garden, but a more extensive and irregular surrounding planting opportunity than a balcony, has had to keep up with the times and as the micro-climate has changed, so has much of the planting. But not all. Below the level of the brick parapet life has continued largely unaffected by the absence of the ancient trees, and comes and goes with the seasons with herbs, including wayward rosemary and lemon verbena, lavender (not very successfully in spite of helpful advice gratefully received) and other perennials and small shrubs taking turns to attract the bees and catch my eye.

Above the brickwork the sturdy railings have provided very necessary secure anchorage for the larger shrubs and small trees that I am now hoping will provide some privacy and shelter for this exposed site. The small eucalyptus, E Nicholii, which I plant in large containers quickly spin out of control in the wind unless tied down, whereas the olives stay put in fair weather or foul, presumably because although both trees are silver evergreens, the leaf and branch combination is less susceptible to gale-force conditions and doesn’t have the same propensity to act as a spinnaker catching the prevailing wind. I’m on the lookout for any large shrub/small tree, preferably evergreen that will tolerate high Summer temperatures and Winter wiles, as I’m in danger of heading towards a mono-culture up aloft with olive trees, which I love, becoming the over-dominant species although they will always have stiff competition from the abundant and equally happy roses.

Meanwhile on a rather frantic pre-Christmas shopping trip to a local garden centre, I was surprised and delighted to come across a  pomegranate for sale in amongst the taller shrubs and next door to the pyracantha (it took me a while to work out that they were displayed alphabetically). It was well over eight feet high in its pot and more columnar in habit than those I’ve seen growing in the South of France and beyond, which was reassuring as the juvenile one I planted last Summer, close to the warmth of the building and as sheltered as I can manage from the extremes of the weather, will also be columnar it seems.

I keep reminding myself that craggy Greek slopes are snow covered in Winter, and baked by the sun in the Summer but I still feel I’m expecting rather a lot from my expanding selection of Mediterranean plants.

Advice from the Experts

I support the RHS and enjoy reading (or dipping into) ‘The Garden’, which as with all magazines arrives with contents that are slightly ahead of real time – it seems a bit early in the year to be thinking about planting aeoniums, but no matter, there is much to learn, including experts’ suggestions for evergreens to beat drought, and a preview of Cleve West’s garden for Chelsea, designed to support the charity Centrepoint. As its name suggests ‘365 days of bees’ recommends nectar-rich plants to grow in the garden throughout the year for visiting bees and other pollinators, although it might be more of a challenge to find plants for pots for the balcony that can provide such a consistent supply of nectar without help from the garden below.

It was 3 degrees outside the bedroom last night but nevertheless I caught a glimpse of a bee heading back from the flowering rosemary late morning when presumably it was a little warmer.

‘Bird on the metal railings’ With apologies to Leonard Cohen

By agreement with our fellow residents the pleasures of feeding visiting garden birds, and watching the tits and robins outside the bedroom window were relinquished by us and others pre-pandemic as the feeding stations had been taken over both by feral pigeons (with all the accompanying problems for us and our neighbours) as well as their country cousins. So now visitors are fewer and come more opportunistically in search of food or water. A robin this morning and yesterday a large thrush, possibly a fieldfare I wondered, but lacking both the necessary knowledge and chance to take a photo I’m not so sure. Another photographic opportunity I missed, which was way out of range of the security cameras below, solved a problem I was curious about a few weeks ago when it was still quite mild although Autumn was already giving way to Winter.

Three of the four olive trees I have around and about produce a surprisingly generous crop of olives which turn brown and lush before dropping to the ground as the weather turns frosty. But the most prolific tree, with the fattest olives, seemed to be losing its fruit prematurely, although I couldn’t find any on the tiled surface underneath. Eventually I saw the culprit, a wood pigeon with a large olive in its mouth. The thief returned daily for a while, slightly varying the time, but always at a moment when my phone/camera was out of reach, and only stopped when it had taken all the olives on the far side of the tree, away from my prying eyes and the building. I’m actually rather fond of wood pigeons but I now recognise that I take particular delight in watching my olives grow and swell with pride pari passu.

(More than once I have been criticised by close friends and relations for introducing archaic Latin phrases or obscure plant names into my posts – anyone who read an earlier post  explaining the misfortunes of my Latin education might be particularly surprised that I still cling on to the vestiges of my fragmented grasp of Latin and then show off in this unnecessary way. I’m also aware that I could do more to investigate the olive collective that welcomes Londoners’ olives and in turn turns them into saleable olive oil – a virtuous circle but I might need to be in a position to offer rather more fruit before my contribution would be welcome. I can find out.)

Pruning and Planning

The cover of The January edition of ‘Gardeners World’ magazine signposts what is featured on the inside – ‘Grow and save – how to save £££s by growing your own food’.

Our problem has often been how to avoid increasing the cost of each bean grown by various extravagances; replacing elderly tools, allowing the weeds to gain the upper hand, losing track of seed packets etc. So I will read on carefully. We have already decided that planting more of the crops we enjoy eating, which store well and can cope with some neglect is probably the best way forward for us, but we need to improve our storage facilities as a rather damp shed and family members’ bedrooms and garages are not really a sustainable addition to our overwintering arrangements.

Meanwhile we are still eating our own butternut squash and onions and have only just started buying potatoes again. The garlic planted just before the snow hit the South East has happily come into growth and we’ve reminded ourselves that the next task will be winter pruning – the juvenile apple tree and currant bushes but not the cherry tree which needs warmer conditions for any wounds to heal over.

Vernalisation is a process I thought I understood long before I knew the word, now I’m not so sure. Does planting garlic before Christmas in order to prepare the plants for growth the next year count as vernalisation? When I checked with the internet the emphasis seems to be on planting before a cold spell to promote flowering.

Happy Days

Some of the roses have carried on flowering regardless, not as prolifically as earlier in the year but very welcome when there is much less colour about. I’m not sure what the implications are for pruning but I’ve decided I will go gently and hope for the best. Even more extraordinarily some of the pelargoniums are still in flower alongside the trailing ivy which has adopted its winter pink hue.

But nothing is to me quite as extraordinary as the life and times of bumble bees. ‘A Sting in the Tale’ by Dave Goulson is highly recommended reading, and a very welcome Christmas present full of fascinating and unexpected facts. Unlike my olive trees which I’m sure would be happier in warmer Mediterranean climes, where they grew happily until the recent threat of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium which slowly chokes trees to death, bumble bees avoid Mediterranean countries as far as possible since their dense furry coats tend to prevent adequate cooling when their body temperature rises to dangerous levels. The unusually large Bombus polaris on the other hand lives well within the Arctic Circle and relies on being larger and unusually hairy for its survival. I’ve often wondered if bumble bees nest on the balcony – mice have done and have vacated their homes when under threat, usually I expect from me rummaging around too close to their cosy hideaways. I leave plenty of nest material around the place; straw and artificial ‘wool’ for nesting birds or bees. Apparently loft insulation material is popular with bumbles but lacking a loft I have none to provide. Or could the bees that buzz around on sunny Winter days be solitary bees rather than hungry queen bumbles? Too many questions, too few answers. And I draw the line at offering queens a home ‘chez nous’.

Lunch before Christmas with two close friends was interrupted by the characteristic buzzing of a bumble behind a heavy curtain. Each friend had kindly brought a bunch of flowers which I had put in vases and placed strategically for the visual impact at different points in the room, but had also, we subsequently assumed, attracted the bee drawn through the narrow crack in the window by the smell of the flowers. So far so good, but bizarrely the bee headed for a third vase of flowers, a permanent fixture of artificial flowers with no scent, nectar or pollen but apparently attractive enough for it to burrow into one of the silk and plastic flowers, and sufficiently comfortable that it remained quite placid as I took the flower to the open window so that the sleepy bumble could once again take it’s chances in the wider world.

*William Arthur Ward is a new name to me but this quote caught my eye when I was looking for something else -‘The pessimist complains about the wind;the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.‘ Mr Ward was apparently a motivational expert who may or may not have known much about sailing. It was hard enough tying my wayward eucalyptus to the railings in a forceful headwind.

Happy New Year!



Lost and Found

This post is overdue: inadvertently I deleted my first version focusing on growing veg, and was dispirited by doing so. I had been unusually pleased with the writing, the photos worked well as late Summer began to give way to the first signs of Autumn and I felt foolish and somewhat ashamed of my schoolgirl error. By the time I recovered my sang-froid we had entered a domestic IT maelstrom which it turned out, coincided with a breakdown of my access to WordPress, the platform I use for the blog.

All is now well and meanwhile gardening aloft has been a consoling occupation.

The activity of gardening, as Sue Stuart-Smith highlights in her book ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, is now widely recognised as a creative way to harness intense and painful feelings. This year, the cramped rooftop garden has evolved into a secluded space with a strategically placed spindle bush, Euonymus europaeus Red Cascade, taking up its place centre stage, offering beauty and interest at various points in the year and conveniently dropping its leaves as light levels fall.

Life on the Allotment

In response to a request, instead of somewhat tantalising references to the allotment, henceforth (but probably not in the quiet depths of Winter) I will be including a section on the allotment where I am definitely the under-gardener, but with views and opinions of my own – not always an easy combination for the team leader.

The allotment is a few miles away, on land rented by a private allotment society, which we took over from my sister-in-law who had cared for it with her husband for many years, bringing science as well as hard work, and neat rows to the endeavour. Things are now a little bit more random, but her legacy lives on in the carefully nurtured ground and some wonderful Autumn fruiting raspberries which last year produced fruit for over three months, protected a bit from excess heat by the nearby wisteria which wanders over the shed and though the neighbouring trees and hedge, mingling the while with a fruit-bearing bramble with a good head for heights. Unfortunately there is a tendency for the beautiful racemes of the wisteria to make access to the shed rather difficult, so any inconvenient trailing stems are cut back without due care and attention, only for the very well established climber to flower profusely another year.

The allotment is approximately 7m x 30m but we sub-let about a third to our neighbouring allotmentier who already has a large immaculate plot but is pleased to have more. In return we benefit from the land he has given over to nettles (so we feel we don’t have to) which will hopefully provide food and shelter for some of the more than forty species, I read, of insects and butterflies that are partially or completely dependent on this high-protein food.

I have tasted nettle soup but haven’t yet developed a real liking for it, whereas studying the life of all sorts in our neighbour’s wild life pond is engrossing and a real source of fascination – nature red in tooth and claw. Very much earlier in the year, and several weeks after some of the copious frog spawn had emerged as tadpoles, but before any lack of rain-water was unduly significant, large numbers of dead adult frogs were to be found on the grass paths around the pond with no obvious explanation. I wonder why.

The planting style is somewhat informal – beetroot seeds scattered rather than necessarily neatly planted in defined rows – but after several years we reached a peak last year when we grew about 25% of our considerable annual fruit and vegetable needs, tomatoes and leafy salads excepted. This achievement was in spite of the encroachment of pumpkins enthusiastically nurtured by the rapidly growing grandson and a steady supply of veg to family and friends at peak season – mostly of course the ever over-productive courgettes. We were self sufficient for many months in potatoes, yet longer in onions, and were eating stored butternut squash well into the new year. However, the birds got most of the ripened sweetcorn so somewhat disheartened we gave up this year as we will again be away at the crucial time.

This year’s radishes and dwarf beans made a brief appearance, garlic and shallots were rather scant (too few plants) and the self-seeded sunflowers looked stunning from mid-Summer onwards, with different plants flowering and fading in turn, seemingly partaking in a carefully orchestrated display. They have happily stayed the course and will hopefully provide the birds with seed until much later in the year, having surprisingly struggled for a while in the extreme heat, hanging their heads rather than turning to the sun. The early Summer months are always noticeable for the profusion of mare’s tails which cover the ground with fern-like greenery growing up to 18 inches or so tall, and retreating as the days begin to shorten once again. They don’t necessarily interfere with plant survival, and have been around since the dinosaurs walked the earth, but at their peak they take over and make it difficult to see what’s happening closer to the ground. Carrot fronds for example are difficult to distinguish from the top growth of the habitual invader.

Beans (French and Runners) have been plentiful, beetroot abundant with several successful repeat sowings, exceptionally large numbers of ridge cucumbers as well as our first apples, so encouraging, but in terms of ground covered, and weight of crop, as last year, the butternut squash plants advanced in all directions, apparently enjoying the heat and strategic watering, until that had to be paused, culminating in plentiful fruit from both the varieties we selected. One of these promised fruit weighing up to 3Kg, which was fulfilled, and now holds the prospect of rather a lot of soup in the coming Autumn months. So some successes but overall we have harvested smaller crops (potatoes and onions) than last year or had fewer pickings (beans and raspberries sadly too) presumably as the effect of the heat and drought was felt all round.

I learnt the French word for beetroot (betterave) 0n a recent trip to France – why haven’t I picked up such a wonderful word before, I wonder? Maybe growing up at a time when pickled beetroot was the norm in England deterred my French teachers from introducing the name of such a versatile vegetable.

Both the butternut squash plants and the cucumbers were reared from seed, on the balcony, in individual small re-used plastic pots. The seeds share the characteristic of being large, and with a very high germination rate, which makes the whole undertaking much more straightforward than planting fine seed with the later requirement of thinning. As I have mentioned before I am not very keen on the gardening tasks which require time and patience and I’ve learnt that our kitchen, with a large sky-light, can get much too hot for happy germination.

Directly underneath this magnet for heat and light, at the height of the heatwave (so several weeks after these seeds needed to be nurtured before being planted out) the indoor thermometer recorded a temperature 0f 43 degrees, while other rooms, shaded by blinds and shrouded by plants, were comfortably cooler. 

Next year we are going to try growing sweet potatoes which we learn involves growing ‘slips’ from sweet potato tubers and then planting the slips. As it is a rather complicated task I think I will leave it to others.

However, sadly and worryingly, wherever you looked at the height of Summer, in this dried out corner of the country, birds and bees were largely absent from roof gardens, allotments, riverside paths and elsewhere and while shrubberies and hedgerows  managed to stay predominantly green the leaves crisped up all around, water sources dried up and even the courgettes were significantly less productive. Although I admit, as someone who can quickly feel overwhelmed by too many courgettes, courgettes in moderation came as something of a respite.

And on the Balcony

Recently bees have resumed their journey up aloft to enjoy the late-Summer flowering caryopteris, and its violet blue flowers (still a magnet at this time of year) and the pots and plants have recovered well from the sky high Summer temperatures and limited watering which for a while seemed would go on for ever. The newly planted pomegranate has enjoyed the heat and light and is still holding its leaves, which have turned from a particularly brilliant glossy green to yellow and ochre, so the balcony is still full of colour but more muted now. Roses, pelargoniums and thulbaghia are continuing to bloom, a few clematis flowers, rather faded in colour, are still in view and the olives are ripening. The scene would not be out of place on any balcony or roof garden, catching the sun, between the southern corner of England down to the sun-baked far reaches of Provence or Tuscany, with silver evergreens and drought tolerant plants. Pretty as a picture.

But there are now only a few vestiges of the cottage garden plants that have successfully competed in the past with the heat-seeking plants for space and attention. One by one as the Mediterranean plants have flourished in this year’s exceptional heat and drought, so the containers have become the final resting place first for aqualegias, which struggled without adequate rainfall early in the year, thalictrum, which should never do well in exposed high rise gardens, but have done so until this year, or hardy geraniums, which have unsurprisingly found the hot, dry conditions to be a challenge too far.

On the other hand clematis, roses and salvias (perhaps not a traditional cottage garden plant but well suited to assembly planting) have defied the odds with long flowering seasons, and whenever there has been respite from the heat, or I have done some cautious watering, have put on a healthy growth spurt with renewed vigour.

This may or may not be a good thing in the long run as trees, shrubs and other plants are known to put out an exceptional display of flowers or fruit before showing signs of dying back or succumbing to a disease or deficiency. I have an elderly rosemary bush that I am watching anxiously; after flowering at the beginning of the year it has looked less and less likely to green up again and I’ve taken the precaution of planting up another rosemary (Miss Jessopp’s Upright) ready to replace the original plant which I’ve grown attached to but has, I think, more or less reached the point of becoming a distraction. On the whole I’m keener on having a planted space that is full of favourites, happy in their environment, but in reality, and disappointingly, the roof garden only has the capacity for one or two people. I often wish we had more space for both plants and people.

Last Words

We have been enjoying wonderful raspberries and the last, probably, of our courgettes this weekend. The butternut squashes are being (mostly) housed by friends and family, the stored potatoes have begun to sprout so we may need to rethink the storage arrangements and eat them quickly, and the brassicas planted against the clock seem to be growing happily.

As I have mentioned previously, one of my cousins once pointed out that I don’t like mud. He was right, and it would be truthful to admit that any references to veg growing on the allotment over the next few months maybe hearsay rather than based on first hand experience.



Summer Aloft


The last few weeks have been busy.  The newly planted trees in the grounds below have needed watering and our allotment has needed attention. In return it has already rewarded us with fresh vegetables, including aliums of all sorts, shallots being a new treat, as well as encouragingly good prospects for the cucumbers which at this stage seem to be particularly plentiful. However, it is the balcony that has preoccupied my waking hours. Plants have demanded care and attention, the larger containers have been moved around to enhance the space and various failures have fortunately been lost in the undergrowth. So like an over anxious parent I have been hovering around tending and fussing, but not writing. Then this year, as every year, as the year turned and mid-Summer was left behind, as if a switch was thrown (an American expression I think I first heard in my student days) I stopped fussing, left the plants alone and began to enjoy what we have.

The benefit of benign neglect in a small space is, I would argue, a certain charm as the encircling plants take over, together with a wide variety of insects, including this year I have noticed day flying moths, identified by a long-distance friend with the necessary expertise. Meanwhile I am of course green with envy whenever I find myself enjoying someone else’s garden and more expansive green space.  But for now the heat has driven me indoors and I’m pleased to be exploring the wider reaches of the horticultural world, while watching with horror as reports of the devastation caused by wild fires across Europe fill the news and our screens.

Roses are Pink

Turkish delight was often a Christmas treat, gift wrapped and with a particular flavour and chewy texture which I’ve always enjoyed. On the other hand my introduction to rose water as an ingredient of skin products and fragrances was a talk from a Yardley rep in the 1960s. The talk was organised by my school, held in the gym and was completely out of step with the times – a year or two later, and heavily influenced by Mary Quant, I would be painting freckles on my face, using extravagant amounts of black eye liner and wearing mini skirts. But I do remember a key message being that rose water in the base fragrance of most perfumes. Why I’ve remembered this is something of a mystery but as rose water flavoured desserts, and Middle Eastern food, has become a bigger part of my life, I have from time to time wondered where it comes from. Now I know thanks to a few free moments, an interesting website and renewed curiosity that led me to a wonderfully sympathetic description of the fields of roses in Qamsar and the craftmanship involved in turning the petals into a global product.

I recommend a read when you have a few moments, although you will have to navigate your way through the adverts. Here is the introduction to the article

‘The soft, pink color of dawn still lingers in the sky, and the first golden rays of the sun are just starting to touch the tips of the surrounding mountains. Yet in the rose fields of Qamsar, a small town in the highlands of central Iran, work is already underway. Amid the chirping of nightingales, locals make their way into the fields, where the crisp morning air is heady with the thick aroma of Damask roses.’

It is the mention of nightingales, combined with the intense pink of the rose petals, that I found particularly evocative, although I shouldn’t have been unduely surprised about the nightingales as I already knew that the population in Europe and the middle East could be measured in millions rather than the sparse numbers in South East England, where they struggle at the northern limit of their territory. I’m not sure that any have been spotted in Berkeley Square recently.

Fringe Benefits

It’s mid-morning and already 31 degrees indoors and out, with temperatures expected to reach the 40s later in the day .

At first glance life on the rooftop balcony is deceptive as the mediterranean plants are adapted to some extent to withstand heat and drought, and I have continued to water from time to time, filling the watering can, rather than making use of a hosepipe, so I don’t overdue it. Nevertheless the contrast between the verdant olive trees aloft with fruit beginning to swell and the parched ground below is very evident.

I’m reasonably sure that my choice of mediterranean plants was really to remind myself, and perhaps others too, of treasured time spent in southern climes rather than to create what has become in horticultural terms a mini Mediterranean zone with flora in common with parts of Australia (several eucalpti), South Africa (tulbaghia and pelargoniums), Southern California and the Mediterranean basin itself with rosemary, bay, oregano and thyme as well as pittosporums and penstemon. Bizarrely I always struggle to get lavender to make it from one year to the next so any tips on growing lavender (English or French) in containers would be very welcome.

Roses too seem remarkably tolerant of the heat and arid conditions, perhaps indebted to their Iranian ancestry, and are providing a very valuable barrier between the hot air outside and the main bedroom alongside.

I now know that from a horticultural perspective the Mediterranean zone is considered to be between 31 degrees and 40 degrees latitude north and south of the equator, with probably in most years an equivalent range of Summer temperatures. Winter rains are a feature too. Toulon, at the most southerly tip of mainland France, has a higher annual rainfall than Paris which comes as something of a surprise. Typically the rain in the South arrives in heavy downpours rather than light rain on frequent grey days. Until not so long ago, armed with both hosepipe and watering can, I have manipulated the conditions on the roof garden, to mimic the natural habitat of the Mediterranean plants, while having my cake and eating it too as I’ve also enjoyed the Summer heat and straw coloured palette on holidays further South.

Now I am more restrained.

I have enjoyed ‘no mow May’ and the beautiful hedgerows, verges and field margins left alone by councils and landowners who have shown restraint and allowed these areas to become much needed habitats and havens for pollinators. But since the overgrown vegetation in certain areas is contributing to the spread of the ever increasing wildfires across Britain, particularly in the drier South East, I wonder if this apparently simple expedient may sadly need to be reconsidered. Cambridge Colleges, Hampton Court Palace and much more modestly our grounds below, have given over space to Summer meadows, now dessicated, close to buildings of all sorts, including businesses and private homes.

Temps Perdu

So if you have a south facing space in the South East corner of the (for the moment still) United Kingdom and want to plant up containers large and small here are some suggestions:

Olives, bay, Eucalyptus Nicholii, pittosporum, the impossibly named Convolvulus cneorum and new to me, pomegranate varieties, adapted for more northerly climes. These take a while to mature and in the Northern hemisphere produce fruit between October and February, which is all someway off but theoretically possible if I’m patient. Meanwhile I will enjoy my container based pomegranate which has reached the stage of being a very attractive, spreading small shrub with unexpectedly glossy bright green leaves – lovely. I’m hoping fruit will follow but that might be more likely in the Metropolis if Summers continue to heat up, which of course comes at a very high price.

I love the rituals that I associate with time spent in sunny Southern climes across the Channel – lowering and raising awnings and blinds, walking on the shady side of the street, opting for lighter clothes and watering in the cool of early morning or evening. However these rituals are now increasingly a part of life in my edge of city spot which you might think would mitigate against growing more familiar cottage garden plants and others which flourish in cooler, damper English Summers, but I have had surprisingly successes over the years.

If you like thalictrum but don’t have a convenient meadow to hand, try growing them in containers; you might find that they do rather well. The key thing seems to be to cram things in so that in time, as the temperature rises, at least all the roots are in shade and the risk of losing too much moisture through evaporation is reduced. This might mean sacrificing the stragglers that don’t like the conditions, or perhaps don’t like the wind. Tulbaghia does tolerate the wind but needs dividing when it gets overcrowded, otherwise the number of flowers tends to be rather disappointing, although the length of season (April – December) is a treat.

Dropmore purple is a moist soil loving plant but has grown well this year in shaded containers even with rather too much competition from other plants. It’s taken a while but a couple of years on from my first attempt the plants have bulked up, come through against the competition and put on a wonderful display.

Many thanks to everyone for their thoughts on the comments section below as well as through e-mails and other acknowledgements. I very much appreciate any curiosity about the balcony – which in reality is often much smaller than expected, less floweriverous than expected (next week it will always look better) which together with the absence of adequate seating for guests can’t be ignored.

Nor can the flattering dismay when visitors who have generously walked the required two or so steps forward and back to take it all in, and are then faced with the realisation that while I write about what I do know or have observed, I mostly don’t know.

Not long ago I was able to demonstrate to a visiting friend that yes you can grow roses in containers (preferably large and with selected roses optimally) but no I didn’t know the name of the rose she particularly liked. Notebooks of my gardening year with details of plans and purchases are mostly empty and my filing system(s) of plants purchased largely incomplete. Keeping labels with the plants is of course the wise way to go but I could do better.








Troubling Times


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

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

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

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


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

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

Storm Eunice

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

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

Pottering On

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

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

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

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

Say it with Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Haste

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

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

Luckily a green-fingered granddaughter took things in hand.

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

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

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


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