Tide and Time

A Week is a Long Time

………….in politics and in a garden at this time of year.

I returned home from the West Country after Easter rather anxious about the impact of yet another Beast from the East, but found things had moved on and changed from predominately brown mud with sticks to spring green with lots of emerging growth. My ornamental cherry Kojo-no-mai was almost in full flower closely followed by the fruiting cherry, together with the Clematii racing skywards as rapidly as possible, lured I presume, by the day length rather than the consistently absent warmth.

However, for some reason I had planted some Lewisia in carefully prepared gritty compost, well suited to their liking for good drainage, and had then in an absent minded moment put the rather plain container into a more decorative outer vessel without any drainage holes. They were floating in water when I found them so I hope, having had a chance to dry off, they will recover. But I will be lucky if they do as this damp and murky weather seems to be clinging on. I’m also not entirely sure if they are plants I can really get to love so this will be a test of our developing relationship; the episode perhaps underlies my ambivalence.

Meanwhile, yesterday I bought some bamboo plant labels, lured by the possibility of being more systematic and rigorous about plant identification, as well as thoughtful about the use of recyclable materials. Container gardening can score badly on both as the turnover of plants tends to be a bit higher than in other locations and as it is often a question of gardening at the single plant level, as one gives way to another, the turnover of names to remember is also correspondingly high, and given the frailities of my Latin education there is little to fall back on.

I have struggled with a succession of Buddleias in spite of buying varieties prepared for the pot (I have probably over-fed them) and at the moment have a plant that I have little confidence in. This is odd for a Buddleia since they grow so prolifically everywhere else, including opportunistically on roof tops where they will catch any passing wind. However, Buddleja alternifolia Unique (‘Pmoore 12’) was voted Best New Introduction 2017 by the Royal Dutch Horticultural Society and is pictured in a fine container with rich purple flowers in profusion, so possibly one to add to my short list. Photos can of course be deceiving and the name is rather long for my bamboo label, challenging for my imperfect memory and susceptibility to absent mindedness.

Another ambition, still in its rudimentary stage, is to get involved with one of the Capital’s voluntary organisations promoting opportunities for gardening in schools. But of course as has been pointed out, any mention on the blog, or perhaps a separate post, would have to be adapted if it is to appeal to younger readers, and the Latin names might have to go which could come as a relief to everyone.

Tales of the Unexpected

A recent trip to Cornwall could have been a chance to escape the snowy east of the country and visit some wonderful, long established gardens with magnificent magnolias, azaleas and other shrubs generally happier in the milder, damper weather, and the more acidic soil at the toe of the country.

However, with the exception of one sunny afternoon the descendants of these beautiful imported specimens were largely seen in passing, driving through villages and small towns, rather than in wooded valleys and at closer quarters. Both have their rewards but the weather was sufficiently wet and chilly, and the ground muddy, to be a deterrent. Many of the spring flowers and much of the blossom too was largely checked. The exception, a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, was sunny and dry, but the anticipated display will begin to emerge more dramatically in another two or three weeks time. The bones of the garden are indeed impressive and the once again productive kitchen garden an exemplar of vegetable gardening on a grand scale, dwarfing the roof garden and allotment hereabouts and rendering any comparison with their grand country cousin somewhat absurd.

What they have in common is the hope of renewal.

The high spot for the accompanying puppy was a first encounter with a full scale, well-dressed scare-crow standing on guard in the kitchen garden. Hopefully, the feathered intruders the scarecrow was intended to deter will be kept away, but the puppy was puzzled and frustrated when barking excitedly didn’t elicit any response. An intruder alert of a different sort, carefully set-up in a distant location, required coordinating the combination of camera, Wi-Fi, app, power source and careful positioning, which took time and concentrated effort to ensure best effectiveness, but in the relief of completing the process, and in the haste of departure, all power was turned off, rendering the hard work obsolete. No such problem for the scarecrow.

Parakeets have an exotic reputation but are not universally liked in the South West of the Metropolis – too noisy, too greedy being the main complaints – and perhaps of most significance to lovers of smaller garden birds, unwantedly scary. However, at this time of year, when the horse chestnuts, only feet from the balcony, are still in bud, the marauding squirrels and green parakeets compete for these seasonal fruits whilst anxious onlookers hope that they will be sufficiently distracted, so that in this race against time enough buds will survive to develop into a seasonal canopy for a brief few weeks before old age and infestation take over.

In this window of opportunity the wood pigeons (usually no more than two but occasionally more) that habitually parade up and down the coping stones on the balcony wall deterring many of the smaller garden birds, are themselves deterred by the parakeets who stay away from the building and shriek from the safe distance of the nearby branches – so tits, blackbirds, sparrows and others can, for a while, feed in peace and drink deep from the roof top supplies. A virtuous unintended consequence.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, lunch with friends in a hidden away rendezvous ended with a surprise gift – an infant Echium. These are, I read, on the whole welcome as striking and unfussy plants which grow to a considerable height (so wise not to place immediately under the roof overhang) and good for pollinators. It is tempting to acquire a container with a capacity to match the potential of the plant and put it in a more or less southerly sheltered spot away from the worst of the wind. But it may be pushing the maxim ‘right plant, right place’ to its limits, so another option is the allotment, which this year will have a designated area for cutting flowers, an alternative to the flower filled summer gardens I seek out when in the countryside and in search of wider spaces. Driving back to the city, towards the end of July, as the fields turn golden and the traffic builds up has always been a wrench but I also knew, and know now, that the city is my natural habitat. Whether my Echium can establish itself away from the West, to the Thames alluvial topsoil will be revealed, but if so I may have to buy some taller vases if I am ever to use them as cut flowers. Although not particularly long-lived, they can settle down and breed profusely to the point of being classified as invasive so I will have to watch and wait very carefully.

(Footnote – so far so tall – some water and a spot away from the wind has already resulted in a growth spurt, so when the rain stops, relocation to the allotment will be a matter of urgency where in time it might be a competitor for any neighbouring giant sun-flowers)

Schedule of works

Not long ago having arrived early for a flight south, and after negotiating security and other necessary hurdles, the somewhat tedious wait for the airport’s gate announcement was transformed into a coffee break with the gardening seven year old’s father. He was also waiting for his flight to be called, but as a pilot, rather than a harrassed passenger. Since the conversation was inevitably weighted towards travel plans and questions about where next, it came as a surprise to discover that the impressive caps worn by airline pilots (maybe not all but certainly many) have the rota for their flights ahead concealed in the crown.

No such governing organisation has been in evidence in these early months of the year, as waves of wintry weather have assailed the country and countryside and even the elevated balcony has had to contend with snow on top of the wintry winds. So far though, the resilience of mother nature has largely won through although there have been anxious moments and some surprises. Nandina domestica, bought especially because of its qualities as a screen, has suffered and so far been checked, whereas the Cistus x purpureus (please note originating in the Mediterranean, and famously drought tolerant) has rewarded each sunnier interval with an attempt at new growth. Who knows what damage, if any, will have been done in the longer run, but for now I continue to hope that the Easter battering will be the last onslaught for a while.

This is also the time when I need to get organised. On the whole I am quite good at set design, much less at planning, so I’m well suited to a roof garden where pots can be moved and schemes easily changed. However, an allotment is very different – neat rows are required, forethought is needed and random planting inadvisable. I am, however, well versed in the notion of companion planting and Charles Dowding’s ideas on the ‘no-dig’ approach to vegetable growing, so I will have something to offer, if asked, as this year I get more involved with the much loved and carefully nurtured plot now inherited. Unanswered is the question how best to ensure my timings and guard against the things that can easily get overlooked – feeding, pruning, tying in, watering, potting on? I have tried diaries and journals with attractive coloured tags to steer me towards the right section and seasonal prompts, but once the work gets busier these masterpieces get put to one side. I have thought of charts but there is no obvious place to keep one helpfully visible when needed, and although this is the time of year when I turn from window shopper to gardener I doubt if new headgear is the answer.

Meanwhile both emerging tulips and the early growth on some roses are already distorted by green fly but joyously, on cue, and with no need for artificial aids the first bumble bee has arrived to take its fill.

 

 

 

 

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  1. I hope you succeed with your Echium – I wouldn’t dare! But I am trying to grow a miniature mulberry (it doesn’t look very well at the moment!) and that would fit onto either site – and then you could go into the jam/pickle making fraternity!! – Though mine is only about 1′ high at the moment – so not many fruit!

    • After a few days watering on the balcony the Echium has been moved to the allotment where it will have the opportunity to spread its wings. It’s flourishing at the moment so I will keep an eye on it there. Meanwhile a miniature mulberry sounds really lovely!

A Balcony by Any Other Name

 

Recent Impressions

In reality my garden, such as it is, is a balcony/roof garden (probably not that as there is very little striding around room, a prerequisite of a garden I would think) or possibly a roof terrace, with some associated walkways, but the temptation to grandiose ideas is never far away. Particularly after visiting friends and family with enviable gardens outside the city bounds, catching up with reading or perhaps most influential of all, being transported through the medium of television to some of the out of reach horticultural wonders of the world, I get ambitious.

Not content with having a rather crowded balcony, a wonderful series of programmes on Paradise Gardens has made me think. Actually, think a lot about the history of these gardens, from the Alhambra, which I have visited, and eastwards to others that I haven’t. Beautiful, evolving and historic spaces with purpose and meaning at every turn, except perhaps under the Raj when swathes of green lawn took over.

A few weeks on and I have recovered a sense of proportion. I have a balcony which is emerging from hibernation, is filling up with colour and has mostly come through the winter unscathed, with hellebores in flower, the rosemary flowering too, and other promising blossom not far away getting ready for early flying visitors. However, lurking is a wish to recast this very limited, windblown, but much loved space into something else.

There are no rills nor the possibility of running water up here, the pleasures of fragrance and the scent of favourite plants are easily rendered impotent by the wind, and I am not sure that my single blueberry, planted for autumn colour, together with my new fruit bearing cherry add up to a sunken fruit orchard. But I did pay attention; I have learned something of these Paradise Gardens and I feel drawn towards visiting more gardens of all sorts. I also know that to think of the seating area of the balcony as a ‘kiosk’ (a kiosk being a small, separated garden pavilion, open on some or all sides, and common in Persia, the Indian sub-continent, and in the Ottoman Empire from the 13th century onward) would be a conceit but if I do, might that be a way of introducing a bit of coherence to the whole space – less of a jumble, more selected planting? I’m off to a promising start with a roof overhang offering some shelter and a collection of roses, some scented, as well as rosemary and the cape garlic, Tulbaghia Violacea.

One of the casualties of winter, or maybe the earlier flood when it first got badly broken and damaged, and was then too dry for too long as it was thrown out of reach in a exceptional dry spell, was a lovely Clematis ‘Broughton Star’ with a particularly pretty flower. Sadly, it was probably rather too vigorous for a container since its spread is on average six metres. However, I found an obelisk a few months ago that has a tendency to lean to one side as soon as you move away from it, but was bought with the hope that it would soon be covered with the early growth obscuring the imperfections of the recently acquired plant support, but as yet no signs of life. Neglect and mistreatment are largely to blame rather than clematis wilt. Another clematis can be bought and hopefully in time the two – obelisk and climber – can support each other, contributing to a frame round the seating area (well actually two seats and a small table doubling up as a plant stand) inviting the possibility that it can be a space for contemplation: a space to look out to the world towards the encircling panorama, lacking an expanse of water and the accompanying sound, but with distant hills that will disappear as the trees green up and obscure the view and in the background the intermittent noise of school children.

Back to Earth

Although the winter has been a time to dream there have been other things to contemplate, many of which I have ignored. I do know that it is a time to do the chores – clean tools (fortunately not many of them) clean pots (pot hygiene is not my strength) or move tender plants under cover or into more sheltered areas (not an option). I have, though, installed another bird feeder, put thought into the location of the insect hotel and nesting ‘wool’ and was rewarded by the visiting seven year old who reassuringly confirmed that this area was good for wild-life. Almost as good as getting a ‘Head Teachers Award’.

A month ago, to be precise the 28th January, signalled the start of more diverse visitors to the bird food as the distant drumming of a woodpecker could be heard not far away and the magpies, for the moment at least, seem to have accepted that the choice of menu and design of bird feeders do not have them primarily in mind.

I’ve also had to face up to reality and jettisoned a rose which has died, unsurprisingly as it had not developed a root system, although the other half of the pair has, and is now evidently ready for the summer ahead. A leggy lavender that has seen much better days has also gone. This opens the way to trying again with a standard lavender tied to a different table leg and hopefully in a less windy position.

So common sense is for the moment winning out on all fronts, although the battle between restraint and abundance, as well as with my planting prejudices keep me occupied. In the wintry months I’m aware of being drawn towards permanent and predictable choices, but as soon as the days grow longer transient and ephemeral flowers and plants of all sorts are centre stage, not only on the balcony but in the plants and gardens I seek out to enjoy. On the whole I like and love what I have without an excess of regret but every now and then something deeper is stirred and I pine for the impossible. Recently walking round friends’ plants, albeit largely admired and appreciated in the absence of their full beauty as it was drizzling, much further North and too early in the year, we arrived at a woody edge with emerging foxgloves waiting for their moment. No particular memories, but a sharp pang, reminded me that I do hold a very particular place for these tall, beautiful and ethereal plants – but a high rise balcony isn’t the place for them, and even if they are grown in the gardens nearby, my balcony kiosk is a distant and remote viewpoint.

Unashamedly, though also I know very fortunately, I do have frequent opportunities to head much further South where the irrigated civic planting is bright and seasonal with characteristic palms, some headless in an attempt to master the palm moth and red palm weevil, which in some areas now have the upper hand.  Colourful domestic cultivation (plumbago, bougainvillaea, pelargoniums and more) quickly shifts into the sun-bleached countryside beyond and a timeless desiccated herbal grassland as the summer heat intensifies and olives, citrus and pines are in command. Not surprising, perhaps, that European friends are perplexed by the plethora of olive trees in London struggling, quite happily, with damp and grey winters and that throughout the South of England olives, plant pots and sunny Summer outside spaces have become a familiar and life enhancing combination, with the potential, as I have discovered, to supply the Capital’s burgeoning craft food industry, food miles notwithstanding.

Actually at the moment here too there’s an imminent risk of desiccated plant life on the door-step. Bizarrely, as it is 24th February, and treacherous weather is forecast to arrive in two or three days time, the recent winds, sunshine and an absence of rain mean plants and bulbs are beginning to suffer and this afternoon will be dedicated to watering. A sure sign of Spring and Summer to follow are the inevitable arrival of aphids, first spotted on some tulip leaves, loitering in a sunny spot with the warmth of the building at hand.

Every Space Does Count

Every bit of space does count within each container, which I fill with as much plant life as I can, as well as occupying the wider area with as many assorted pots and troughs as possible. However, common parts, demised areas and personal property all play a part in the overall scheme of things and the question of what can be planted where. I avoid trellis attached to the walls as these are common parts but occupy the demised surface area as fully as possible. Apparently anyone in the building has the right to knock on the door, walk through the flat and stand on the terrace to admire the view, since although the surface of the terraced areas is demised to the adjoining top floor properties the supporting structures below are common parts. Of course I may have misunderstood the minutiae of this area of archaic law and so far no-one has knocked on the door with this sole purpose in mind which is rather a relief, as there are moments when the sound of an unexpected knock on the door is awkward.

Although opportunistically visitors with all sorts of reasons for coming aloft do stray towards the balcony doors (vertigo notwithstanding) and enjoy the 270 degree view towards Canary Wharf, round past Crystal Palace mast and the southern city fringe, dominated by a mixture of mature trees and buildings of varied vintages and purposes, until to the West the margin of the Chiltern Hills tops the sky-line. Even without the encouragement of tea and cakes, visitors are often generous, and frequently enthusiastic and helpful in their comments, if not too distracted by the passing planes coming in to land, and the potential trip hazards underfoot as small pots and other impedimenta always seem to be on the path to the view. If planning a visit I recommend dawn or dusk as the skies at sunrise or sunset are frequently spectacular.

Once upon a time I was trying to get ready for the day while answering a particularly difficult e-mail. I was preoccupied, and trying to juggle clothes, make-up, re-writes, change of clothes as well as my mounting anxiety. At this distance I have no idea what the e-mail related to but I do remember sitting in front of my lap-top  in a general state of disorder when from the left I saw a rather anxious man, wiry and cautious, coming along the walkway and heading towards my dustbin sized containers full of plants in full growth, obstructing the path in front of the window. It was late summer and the containers had done well with, amongst other things, a clematis on its third flowering, an oversized dahlia that I didn’t particularly like and the healthy E Nicholii recently re-potted.

I’m not sure who was most shocked – he quickly retreated and I quickly got dressed, guiltily anxious that my plants were in trouble – why else would he be there except to see what was going on in the demised area? As I gradually began to think more rationally I decided I needed to take action to establish was this was all about. There had been no knock on the door but I did remember that the stranger was approaching my window from the direction of a service door onto the common parts, and since the code for this door is only known to those with privileged access, excluding residents trying to get away from advancing danger, fire included, I assumed he was there for bone fide reasons.

I never did discover why he hadn’t knocked but he was, in fact, the surveyor called upon in an emergency to deal, alongside his team, with a damaging flood into the flat below. Several hours later and having borrowed a hose-pipe which to his delight I was in a position to lend him, the leak was sealed and passed a temporary stress test thanks to my hose. Under his orders the main balcony became the repository for the troughs and pots obstructing his workforce, and my pots and plants were exonerated. Since then I have been less anxious about the sensitivities regarding demised areas but I’m still careful to avoid trellising on the exterior walls. However, it was a moment when the attractions of a detached property, with or without the necessity for a ‘ride-on mower‘ were an appealing alternative to the complexities of flat dwelling. Fortunately, everyone is given plenty of notice when the abseilers are due to scale the building for their regular checks of the roof and guttering.

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  1. I love it all Anne : the description of your Paradise, the emotions, the stories, and the free flow of the writing. It’s full of drama and very peaceful at the same time – just like life I suppose… Thank you for doing it and allowing me to enjoy it.

  2. I read it to the end!! And did enjoy it!! Especially the strangers “lurking” about! Having survived another bout of being snowed in, and a beautiful spring day yesterday plus having a ground floor garden and no flowers on the rosemary yet! A toad got it wrong and tried to get into the kitchen – probably to get warm! In summer with the door open – I frequently have them in the kitchen at night and they get very angry when you try to pick them up! But not in this weather – hope he is back under his stone by now!

    • Many thanks for all your comments and appreciation, which in turn I very much appreciate. This reply has in part been delayed by the vicissitudes in the weather since my horticultural observations have been rendered obsolete by the shifts in the seasons. But with longer days here there is also a more stable certainty of the colour and life to come.

A Question of Perspective

 

Old and New

Observant readers may have noticed that the railings atop the parapet walls are cumbersome and seemingly out of proportion, given the miniature space hereabouts. However, from the garden below looking up they are clearly in scale and anything daintier or more delicate would be rather absurd since the building as a whole is substantial. Nevertheless, a lot of effort on my part is spent trying to soften the impact, particularly in parts of the terrace directly in my eyeline. Mid-winter is challenging as the  Clematis montana has shrunk to nothing and my eye is drawn downwards to the assembled pots and waterlogged plants. The pot feet have been no answer to the recent rainfall.

Viewed from the last few days of the old year there was a sense of some plants lingering, defiantly flowering: rose buds, salvias and agapanthus (or are they cape garlic?) generously struggling on, but with their glory days behind them. A few days later and in truth not so very much had changed on the balcony but everything has – the emergence of early Spring bulbs, a few buds and hellebores in season, already suggesting what is to come – longer days and the chance to enjoy the hands-on-ness of gardening.

Following a family bereavement a year ago some old family photos have reached me, many of which I remember from other albums and collections, but some are new to me. Amongst them are photos of a much younger me in gardening mode. I recognise the rose bed that I seem to be about to step into, but not the moment, although shoes and flower beds have been something of a recurring theme throughout my gardening life. I notice my shoes are rather shiny and it could be that I was rather proud of them, but the toes were definitely tipping towards the flowerbed, eager as I was to smell the impressively sized bloom. I can’t be sure, but the rose could have been ‘Peace’ . It was the era, and it was beautiful, and grew well in many of the gardens I frequented as a child.

Later, when an often rather exhausting mixture of work and other pressures encroached on leisure moments, I took to gardening again, but old habits (young habits) die hard and while waiting for the kettle to boil or supper to cook I would wander out of the back door, to the immense frustration of my closest family, and find myself again amidst a flower bed trying to tame a straggly passionflower or rescue a water starved honeysuckle. The distance was not the problem, as it was a very small city back garden, but the journey was often made in extravagantly expensive shoes, a luxury I am still trying to resist. As it happened, this hidden-away house was behind a larger riverside property owned by Nanette de Valois (Dame Nanette by then) who in her late years would walk down the lane dividing us, sometimes stopping to admire or comment as I rummaged in the front garden, while using her stick to point, very much as I imagine she must have done to correct ballerina’s points or positions. She had strong views on my planting too and was never given to faint praise.

I also recognise my earliest garden, as well as my sense of concentration and contemplation, with the hand-bag lending a suggestion of a Royal walk-about. Looking again, the carefully demarcated area, under apple trees, and with extremely unpromising stony soil, did have the benefit of being south facing and out of sight, so not required to fit into any planting design or overall scheme. I had a scheme of my own which may be a false memory but I think depended on even rows, strips of seeds, planted regularly and the hope of a rather well ordered and uniform display. My expression in the black and white world of post-war photography suggests that this was an early experience of the uncertainty of gardening. I look rather perplexed and disappointed. Things don’t always go to plan, and in the fertile soil of horticultural ignorance serendipity can easily gain the upper hand. I have now learned about the locally familiar horticultural discoveries in the streets of Columbia. There, opportunistic orchids grab any crack in the paving, or crevice in a wall, to anchor themselves before flowering profusely, sustaining their glory, unchanging as the year moves on while the uniform, seasonless conditions prevail. Something to think about while waiting for the days to extend.

Lessons learned

So for the moment, while gardening is a virtual activity I have turned to reading and planning, and was heartened to read that the Royal Horticultural Society is now encouraging dense planting wherever possible, so for the benefit of plant-living invertebrates the advice is to ‘put in plenty of plants and let them grow vigorously’. And I think I may have found an answer to the challenge of increasing the number of containers in my very small space. Each container is already overcrowded, and protecting some space for socialising, or sitting is important too, but not necessarily compatible with more containers, particularly the large ones I am inclined to introduce. I also need to be able to reach the periphery of the balcony to tend, feed, water, plant, fuss, admire, deadhead and so on. I think pot movers may be the answer – and they could be tied to the now vacant table leg in the face of stormy weather. For the first time I have the luxury of a smooth tiled terrace so why not acquire some pot movers or trolleys, some new plants and some containers to occupy the pot stands which can then hold court in the middle of the terrace bringing some interesting planting opportunities – an underplanted witch hazel recently caught my eye and could introduce height and scent rather unexpectedly. The containers I hope, can then be moved back and forth as friends and flowers arrive and depart, although having convinced myself that this is a good idea I have yet to convince those around me.

This all makes me think of other modes of garden transport; wheelbarrow rides heading to the compost heap (no sophisticated bin system then) or wheeling a carefully created Guy to its funeral pyre, my elderly father using the mower as a motorised walking frame (while still in charge of the upkeep of the grass), and a surprise encounter with a miniature railway when on a residential summer course in a rather grand residence. It was designed to bring drinks from the kitchen to the terrace although by then the track was in disrepair. These recollections are topped by the story, recently confirmed, of a family member, now a father himself, who was ingenious enough at the age of six or seven to take advantage of a Sunday colour supplement advertising ‘ride-on mowers’. Using his  own initiative he arranged for a sales rep to come to the house to demonstrate the mower, which in itself was quite ambitious as the lawn was smaller than a tennis-court. It turned out that the salesman first needed to dismantle the machine in order to gain access to the back garden, all to the astonishment of his unprepared parents.

Meanwhile, I’m still under the sway of the plant filled extravaganza at Petersham Nurseries, where lunch in the large conservatory was a well choreographed delight, with elegant food garnished with flowers and the footwear necessarily mud resistant. So an ever more densely packed balcony could satisfy my aesthetic inclinations as well as the local wildlife. But I might need a wedge or two as well, since the terrace has an imperceptible, but significant slope to right and left, rising to a peak in the centre to ensure a run-off for the very present rain.

And there has been a lot of rain. Too much for one of my beautiful E Nicholii which has been battered by winter storms, including the once notorious Storm Eleanor. Although securely tied to a table leg it was damaged by my careless placement of a stake intended to help maintain its upright stance, which in itself was probably mistaken as its natural habit is to stoop as it grows. Abraded, wounded and waterlogged it has been returned to it’s pre-flood location where with protection from the elements it once thrived. Recovery may take some while. I exchanged it for the pittosporum, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Elizabeth’, which has had to relinquish its place and may not like the colder, more exposed new position, but hopefully will cope better with the rain. I may have had too much faith in staking by table leg but the pittosporum looks good (for the moment) and some space has now emerged on the table top alongside, waiting to be occupied in the days ahead.

Rain also played its part in the planned log gathering, as Boxing Day was grey, wet and dreary outside and the search was deferred. Another walk in the deer park will be rewarded by a wide range of insect accommodation, and probably a selection of minute creatures too. But presumably since any slightly rotten piece of wood will already be occupied I’m left wondering – what is more wild life friendly in the overall scheme of things: to broaden the habitat range by introducing insect life unfamiliar with living at height to a wind swept roof space, or leave well alone. Would an unrotten piece of wood left to get rain soaked on the balcony be best of all, although it might involve patience. Meanwhile blackbirds, I suspect, are ignoring my bird feeder, even though my chosen bird food has blackbirds in mind, preferring to dig amongst my pots in search of food on the hoof, or at least with six legs, while scattering clumps of compost around.

The weather and winter season expose my frailities, particularly my dislike of the cold and the wet, which was reinforced in my early student days which were spent traipsing through a sea of mud as the October rain was ceaseless and the hall of residence still marooned in a building site. My first purchase in the unfamiliar Northern landscape was a pair of wellingtons, which was a disappointing start for a child of the 60s.

The frailities of my planting and planning, obscured by an abundance of greenery later in the year, are also very apparent now. It is true that on all sides, from indoors looking out, there are silvery evergreens, shapely pots, corkscrew willow supports, hellebores and other emerging signs of life including the sunseaking silver bush Convolvulus cneorum bizarrely coming into flower. But an unexpected moment on the balcony, taking a visiting friend on a very brief guided tour, illuminated the jobs that need doing and my reliance on the plants to obscure some weak underpinnings. Carefully, casually assorted pots can quickly become an ill-assorted collection of neglected plants, mismatched and straggly, waiting to be pruned, with marginal areas where wild-life friendliness might be a euphemism for idleness.

Ideas for the future

However, I am getting better at plant selection and ensuring there is something of interest as time goes by, although there have been some expensive mistakes along the way. Am I about to make another I wonder? In a favourite catalogue of plants that I am very unlikely to buy (as I don’t need to worry about rabbit or deer resistant species which are often highlighted in the small print of this particular publication) I have spotted a wisteria, Wisteria Frutescens Amethyst Falls to be precise, which could be the answer to everything, as it has highly fragrant purple and lilac panicles, the habit stays compact when grown in a pot and it flowers the first year. I also thought that it didn’t need any pruning or training, but on re-reading that is clearly wishful thinking. So if my ailing E Nicholii succumbs, or even if it doesn’t, it could be a plant to acquire.

A book by the appropriately named Paul Wood, London’s Street Trees, A Field Guide to the Urban Forest, is also becoming a firm favourite although I have had to overcome my initial disappointment that my particular wooded corner at the city edge doesn’t get a mention. I have already learned a great deal about the history and current influences on the diverse tree planting in the capital, and that surprisingly only 3% of the total tree population are London Planes. These are beautiful and tolerant of pollution so doubly blessed, even though they make me cough and my eyes water and are apparently no good for wild-life. This news comes at a tricky time as the horse-chestnuts below are struggling and may be nearing the end of their lifespan. Planting a London plane has been suggested as a way of managing the succession, and I do have some say in the decision, but I am now in a dilemma as I had assumed that a vote for a plane would also be a vote for wild-life.

Memos to self

 

A Christmas gift to a young Australian couple, might have been more welcome if I’d explained that the ‘plants’ were hyacinth bulbs and in time would inevitably need staking as they began to keel over. I didn’t. The containers which are now beginning to show signs of re-birth are mostly crammed with unidentified plants. I’ve kept all the labels (in a drawer) and intended to draw plans. I didn’t. Hopefully as they emerge their identity will become more obvious, but not much help now. And I thought Nandina Domestica was a bamboo. It isn’t.

 

More encouragingly my brand new Cherry Pigmy Kordia, promising blossom and fruit in time, already seems happily established in its new home. My olive trees  are thriving in spite of, or because of, my anxiety inducing pruning of a few months ago and I’ve ordered a new lady-bird home.

Meanwhile although a raw chill and grey skies have recently taken hold, my standard rosemary is producing more and more flowers, presumably in anticipation of the arrival of particularly early bumble bees. While the admittedly small number of fruits that grow on my olive trees could I learn, at least theoretically, join with others to produce a locally sourced crop for the expanding craft food industry.

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Spring is announced by our first Camelia in full bloom. Perhaps you might squeeze a pot Camelia into a corner of your terraee and enjoy that early indicator that Spring will actually come to us and Winter is only a limited season. You can dispose of it when it gets too big but enjoy it while you can.

  2. Pretty sure it’s Ninette
    I’m sure you are inundated with plant suggestions but have a look at Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘citrina’ I bought one as a house plant a couple of years ago as I was told it would do well in a north facing porch. But it didn’t flower and got covered in greenfly last summer so was left on the terrace on it’s way to the compost heap. It suddenly started flowering last October and has been doing so ever since in spite of Yorkshire wind, rain and snow. I took a photo but can’t load it on to this comment. I’ll send it in an email.
    Gord’s bees have been out in the weak January sunshine, so London bumbles should soon be on your Rosemary.

  3. Have you thought of hanging things out over the edge? As well as extending the garden, it might also hide the railings…

    Love J

    • Thank you all for your comments – and yes, a gift of a beautiful Camelia was initially a great joy, and in turn it enjoyed the prize (sheltered) location it was given, but quickly became much too big. Pruning wasn’t the answer as I probably pruned it at the wrong season (summer for shape, winter for growth, or is it the other way round?) and it got out of hand and very sadly had to go.

      And I’m anxious that if I can’t spell Ninette correctly (my apologies) Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘citrina’ might be rather challenging. I’m also a bit worried that although it has taken to Northern winters, on the whole, I have been cowardly, or perhaps sensible, and planted house-hold names that might cope with the conditions and my horticultural limitations. On the other hand it sounds extremely tempting, I could expand my gardening knowledge, pay more attention to spelling, and an internet search wouldn’t take long – and I could also add to my selection of trailing plants too which are the obvious way to distract the eye from the railings.

      I have had great success with Trachelospermum jasminodes, a London favourite, as well as summer flowering clematis, although they do get blown about, but the winter flowering varieties got so rampant that keeping them attached to the railings was in itself problematic. However, I’m beginning to think that I should try again and look carefully for varieties that are appropriate. But even honeysuckles suggested for container growing haven’t really thrived, and mindful of the law as it relates to property, and the knowledge that the railings are included in the ‘common parts’, I have to be a bit cautious about how I attach things. Soft Flexi-tie is find but beyond that I’m not sure.

      • I’m hopeless with plant names. I copied that one off the label. Like you I keep the labels but mine are jumbled up in a small bag in the cellar. I had to find it recently after a neighbour asked what it was.

Seasonal Gifts

The winter solstice is rapidly approaching but harbingers of a colder season ahead have mostly, up to now, been few and far between in this city edge location, and in a brief interval between fierce winds and cold sun I did manage to plant the last of the bulbs I ordered enthusiastically on-line. Luckily tulips can tolerate late planting, having a penchant for the cold, but as ever I was on the cusp of planting too late, too crowded and too randomly. The carefully conceived schemes I imagined a few months ago gave way to a haphazard search for more planting opportunities. Usually this turns out all right in a slightly loose sort of way as the emerging bulbs linger and overlap, fading gradually, to be replaced in turn with summer planting. However, as I had already fallen for, and planted up, Aquilegia vulgaris stellata ‘Ruby Port’ in several containers and my Anenome ‘wild swan’ had arrived and needed its place, the available space was already compromised.

Attentive watering is needed too in the more clement intervals as the wind continues to take its toll, and there are several dry pockets under foliage, against walls and below the eaves. Actually, I’m not sure if eaves is (are) the correct term as the roof has industrial forebears rather than being made of traditional building materials, but since it projects a few feet from the walls it offers a rain shelter or a rain shadow depending on your perspective. Either way, plants of all ages can be at risk and may need assistance even in the wettest weather. Helpfully, I’ve read that in an emergency the way to encourage dried out compost to take up water is to add a drop of washing-up liquid to a full watering can and wait for the change in surface tension to come to your aid, thereby ensuring that less water is wasted and the compost is re-hydrated. I understand the principle but as yet haven’t managed to translate the recommendation into successful practice. I suspect that I am too cautious and take the instruction to be careful when adding the washing-up liquid too literally. Another time I will be more liberal and risk the consequences.

Meanwhile under the protection of the roof, and under the direction of the aforementioned seven year old, http://retiringgardener.uk/2017/11/06/water-water-everywhere/. I recently carefully assembled some insect homes. These owed more to the helpful guidance of Beavers than to the local Pollinators Path Project, but nevertheless resulted in some carefully assembled bespoke accommodation. First, plastic drinks containers were found, then an array of leaves, twigs and other plant debris, but not before I was reprimanded for disturbing (potentially I think) some other habitat. Then a site was identified under the overhang, amidst the pebbly margin of the terrace and surrounded by a random selection of plants, bags of compost and additional woody remnants. So far so good, with the bonus that I was left feeling particularly virtuous since the main construction relied on single use plastic, now being converted into permanent housing. On reflection of course, this was only a drop in the ocean, to coin a phrase, a rather pathetic contribution to the herculean task of clearing the oceans of plastic, or at least minimalising the accumulation of the silent death traps lurking in deep waters.

However, after a particularly vicious windy spell, warranting an Met Office amber warning, which the main structures and plants on the terrace survived quite happily, including the Eucalyptus ‘nicholii’  attached to a table leg, the insect homes were gone and so too my courage. I will hopefully have reinstalled them using better materials before the young building regs inspector comes again, as the accusation that I have been neglectful, and again a poor guardian of delicate habitat, will otherwise come home to roost. Not a good start for someone eager to encourage high-rise wild life.

Views and reviews

Learning from experience is, I suppose, a life long challenge in gardening as in life, but having a certain sort of foresight, the capacity to imagine how things will develop and turn out is perhaps a more exceptional quality. A mile or two away from this diminutive roof-top space is a statue to Capability Brown. He lived on the north bank of the Thames for about 15 years and along with the grand estates has left his traces on a more domestic scale in gardens nearby. The creation of his wonderful landscapes required a certain ruthlessness as villages and vistas were manipulated and managed into a naturalistic form that I have always accepted as being gardening at its best. Not quite so easy to enjoy in the knowledge, and with the awareness, that the homes and habits of hundreds of villagers were destroyed in the service of the overall enterprise.

But serendipitous views and vistas can be had, and in abundance, up at this level. They come and go as the leaves drop to reveal a distant scene through skeletal outlines, and are re-framed as the leaves close in and the foreground is once again in green. By chance, since I lack the imagination myself, although I am quite good at making the most of what comes along, the best view from the balcony, whatever the season, is actually from indoors looking out through, I hope, the growing Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘red fox’, unfortunately at the moment resembling a collection of particularly unpromising sticks. This is essentially a very private view since lying on the bed, gazing up the hill, through the balcony plants, tree tops and occasional building to the church spire on the crown of the hill, there is the possibility of a feast of ever-changing colours and textures whatever the weather, whatever the season or time of day. At ground level the noise increases, the buildings are evidently closely packed, and the traffic is inescapeable but the trees generally hold their ground; young and old, majestic canopies of lime, pine, plane (a personal favourite), hornbeam, ash, the list could be extended. Below them the berried rowans battle for space with laurels, cherries and assorted others. But two mighty horse chestnuts immediately below the balcony may now be radically lopped in the service of their preservation and there is an anxious wait for the outcome of the tree surgeon’s detailed inspection, conscious that the view to the south may change. I wait to see what might emerge.

Although I do continue to yearn from time to time for a more ordered state of affairs, including the sophistication of matching bulbs in matching containers, this remains out of reach while I habitually cling on to too much in late Autumn and the planters are unavailable. I’m joined in this conspiracy by some of this year’s plants still producing occasional flowers; salvias, geraniums and roses close to the building, as well as the determined hellebores, and now to my surprise by the first rosemary flower, rather tentative but nevertheless showing a determined optimism. Down below the hollies are beginning to bear their berries, but up here it is another world which could be in danger of sliding past winter.

As at other times of year the plants and bulbs come mostly from local garden centres or on-line, with some additional horticultural gifts too. These are particularly welcome as I become aquainted, or reaquainted, with plants that I have ignored or neglected for one reason or another, some of which push me out of my comfort zone but then become permanent fixtures, others which I know and love but in time succumb to the harsh winds and limited planting space that all my plants are up against.

So in this season of planning and wondering I scour the catalogues and internet options, and think about other peoples’ gardens; what is essential, what can I squeeze in, what can I reconcile myself to. Some horticultural challenges I can easily avoid – in this neighbourhood the deer are all behind park railings, but planning for good plant combinations and succession planning is, I have discovered, somewhat challenging. At any one time only one or two plants may be contributing significantly to the party and there is also the added wish to be wildlife friendly, even if this isn’t a wild flower garden. Fortunately some plants (wild marjoram comes to mind) happily bridge the gap between town and country, wild and cultivated and somehow too, engender a sense of harmony and focus, or maybe that has more to do with personal memories and associations.  On the other hand I’ve read that all it needs to turn ‘a city roof top into a verdant paradise’ is an orchard of potted fruit trees; admittedly the author was a nurseryman.

This year though there is a bonus. Careful negotiation has led to an agreement that a strip of the allotment will be available for cutting flowers – so early summer sweet peas, late summer dahlias and some mid-summer cosmos (which seem to produce flowers indefinitely even when confined to a pot) can, I hope, be anticipated, prepared and planted and will hopefully provide extra enticement to pollinators and a succession of flowers for indoors too. A virtuous exchange I hope for which I am extremely grateful.

I can’t unfortunately claim to be able to anticipate making elaborate arrangements with the blooms that bloom as I haven’t progressed much since I was given a ‘fair’ for the flower arranging I did at school. My memory is somewhat vague but as part of the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme’ in those dim and distant days, there was a category called ‘home making’ or something similar. For some long forgotten reason I chose flower-arranging for which we were required to do a small vase arrangement and a large flower arrangement. All this was encouraged by the school and I suppose we were given some instructions or lessons. These details have faded but I do remember the examination day when we entered a room with vases, scissors, water I presume and all the flowers we had each brought in order to assemble the test displays. The other girls were mostly day-pupils and it seemed to me had either denuded large herbaceous borders or had gone to florists with deep pockets, and so arrived with foliage, flowers, variations of form and colour and a rather competitive air. As boarders the rest of us were only allowed to pick the rosebay willow herb from the field beyond the school – not quite fair I thought. The best we could do was cut the stems longer or shorter and the results were naturally not so impressive. The judge was the mother of one of the day-girls I seem to remember.

I did much better in another category when I chose life-saving and did quite well. Arguably a more useful skill.

Good fortune

As my roof-top garden is predominately orientated to the south, south-west it follows that my neighbours face east, north-east and have rather different trials and tribulations. Lunching together recently in a wonderful plant filled conservatory not far away (actually with thick mud underfoot as it had rained heavily the night before) the conversation moved around and for a while touched on my blog and recent posts http://retiringgardener.uk/2017/08/03/out-of-season/. In late summer I had written of my delight that my balcony was alive with ladybirds hopefully doing all they could to limit my aphid problem. I can see now that I was also revealing conspicuous gaps in my knowledge, because although I had registered that there were several different varieties, I hadn’t tried to make sense of this sudden arrival of so many visitors providing unexpected pest control. They hadn’t travelled far as my neighbours explained. Bought to control their own aphid problem the ladybirds had followed the sun and moved twenty yards south. Meanwhile the pigeon problem that had bothered them was gradually becoming less significant as the pigeons (wood pigeons I now know) were also moving south, attracted less by the sun than a new range of bird food that I had begun supplying. Another fair exchange I hope.

I remain seduced by the possibility of a verdant paradise, but the lay-out hereabouts does not suggest the possibility of a group of patio pots, amounting to an orchard, although I can manage a row of two pots (at best) and the south facing wall is vacant and waiting for occupancy.

There have been no converts to my earlier thoughts of acquiring a crab apple. Comments and messages, which I have been delighted to receive, have all prompted me to recognise that either I am not a crab-apple sort of person (possibly) or that I am unlikely to make use of the fruit when it arrives (probably). Not known for my jam-making skills I have been steered towards dessert apples and family trees, but the more recent alternative suggestion of a patio friendly apricot, Apricotcompacta’ a self-fertilising variety producing mouth ready fruit without the need for pruning, seemed irresistable, but others have got there before me and I will have to wait as it is now out of stock.

Instead I have a surprise in store as I was recently asked what I wanted for Christmas, a plant having already been generously decided upon. I suggested a dwarf fruit tree (unspecified) so who knows – I may yet have a crab apple and the beginnings of a verdant paradise.

Happily too I have now discovered the new location of the insect homes. Still in the original construction, but buried under leaves and other garden litter, they have been blown towards a dry shady spot between the feet of a long flowering cistus, that was also happier when relocated, and an adaptable lavender that I move with the seasons. For now the lavender, an English variety so less particular about the damp air and cold winds, provides an appealing mound of grey foliage visible from indoors, but as the days get longer and the competition for space gets stronger, it may have to give way and accept a less central position. The leak is also fixed, the tiles have been replaced and two of the original containers have been joined by a pettosporum, which seems to be equally at home, albeit clipped and contained, on a raw windy balcony in the city, as it would be liberated in the milder spaces of the West Country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. A suggestion for the insects: a couple of logs that are beginning to rot. All sorts of creepy crawlies like logs and they won’t blow about. I’m sure the 7 year old would be impressed.
    Gord has just read your blog for the first time. ” Have you read Annie’s blog? She writes beautifully” says he with a faint hint of surprise in his voice.

    • The last time the seven year old and I got involved in logs was a rather hazardous business of removing a 14 foot long branch that had landed very close to a zip wire. But, a combination of opportunity (woods at the bottom of the garden) good timing (Boxing Day) and careful selection of some hopefully smallish pieces of wood (to build a log pile to scale) means your suggestion could be implemented very soon – I really appreciate the idea although I also wonder why I haven’t thought of it myself, particularly as the balcony is surrounded by large trees with their feet in the garden below, and the question of clearing the undergrowth has been a much discussed issue in our gardening group. A case of being unable to see the deadwood for the trees maybe?

  2. Sounds and looks lovely and very absorbing. I agree that it’s beautifully written. Just one question: have you thought of a bird feeder?

    • Many thanks for your comment and for reading the blog – and yes, bird feeders are obvious but not entirely straightforward. I do now have one but not the full range of feeders, offering the à la carte menu, that I originally envisaged. My first purchase was carefully designed to allow small garden birds in and keep larger birds, particularly the rather aggressive magpies, out. But the small birds never took to it, partly I think because their escape route was not very obvious. I then went for some rather attractive small feeders which could be hidden amongst foliage, or be in the open, and allowed the smaller birds to perch and eat while on the look out. These were initially very successful. However, the feral pigeons, which normally frequent the north, city side of the building, discovered them and took over. This drove the smaller garden birds away and also risked increasing the problem of bird pooh on the cars down below. Undaunted I tried again, although the outlay on bird feeders was mounting. But I now do have a feeder which has been well worth the expense. With a dome to keep off magpies, and mounted in a narrow gap between a south easterly wall and a very free growing rambling rose, it is visited happily by wood pigeons, a wide variety of garden birds and even occasional wood-peckers. It is also ignored by the local parakeets. I am occasionally asked by someone close to me why I favour some birds more than others, which is not an entirely straightforward question to answer.

      • Don’t forget the Goldfinches!! Coming in, in droves, in the countryside! I have a ground feeder as well and it takes a little time for them to realise that they can get in and out of the “cage” – also if you like “pretty” birds, meal worms in the ground feeder does attract the wagtails – I have a grey one feeding daily – perhaps because of the pond – Happy New Year Ann

        • Ah! – so perhaps my mealworms need to be offered in another feeder at ground level too? Actually I did wonder if I’d glimpsed a visiting wagtail just before Christmas but didn’t really dare to hope. I will look more closely in the future. But no luck with goldfinches so far, in spite of a dedicated nigella seed feeder. Maybe the surrounding gardens are offering more cover or a better menu? There is another possible explanation – since ornithology is only a relatively recent interest, identification of visiting birds involves a rather complicated sequence of forwarding photos to the family experts and waiting for the answers to come back. This is sometimes made even more complicated because the family experts don’t always agree on the finer details. I wonder which other visitors I might have missed?

Water, water everywhere

Early Ambitions

I have memories, faint like the drawings themselves, of looking at plans, perhaps of Versailles, perhaps of palaces and places nearer home, with painstaking details marked in now fading ink, of long canals and formal planting stretching out into the countryside beyond. It is often the gardens, rather then the historical contents that have stayed in my mind from these visits, but nowadays I am happy to settle for wandering around gardens of any size without a sense of obligation to go indoors.

Many of my larger pots and containers have travelled from place to place as I have, and some of the smaller ones too, but this roof-top project is relatively new and I was joined by the plants as my move became more settled. I began with great ambitions, drawing up plans which included larger new containers drawn to scale. So far so good. But somehow in my early enthusiasm, and a wish born of desperation to mask the starkness of the parapet walls and much else besides, I overlooked the importance of paying attention to plant growth and ultimate size. Even in a container most things grow and for a while quite happily. Easily swayed I drew up elaborate plans for this elevated plot, as in need of some structure myself, and lacking modesty, I drew and sketched the structures and plant life I wanted around me. These included a pond, albeit a pond in a container.

The structures remain, some sturdy rectangular planters functioning as miniature raised beds, with an assortment of new and old tubs, containers, pebbles, garden furniture and other garden paraphernalia, but the planting plan has gradually been relinquished in favour of fewer favourites with less need of space and a bit more attention to wildlife.

Nevertheless, with the Autumn clear up more or less over, what seems to be emerging is something more like a set design than a garden in waiting. The exuberance of the earlier months has gone leaving behind a particularly tidy terrace – I’m not sure I like it but I’m not sure there’s an alternative. True there remains a selection of well placed pots with silvery evergreen foliage – including the aforementioned Eucalyptus nicholii doing well, olives hopefully undaunted by my pruning but which will never amount to the beauty and productivity of a Greek olive grove, lavenders, rosemary and yet more premature hellebores. But as skeletal shapes and pots of bare compost emerge, all I can do now is wait for the plants to take over next year and plan for more.

Learning from Experience

Meanwhile with the departure of the summer beauties my resolve to keep new plants to a minimum has gone too. I have succumbed, and with the help of tried and tested suggestions, I have bought a Prunus incisa ‘kojo-no-mai’ waiting for a new container (it grows very slowly, only reaching 1.2 metres in 10 years, so I would argue justifies a home to match it’s seasonal beauty), ordered Anemone ‘wild swan’ and some sweet box, as I couldn’t find either locally, and my spring bulbs are waiting to be planted. With bulbs as with everything there are choices to be made and I am biased towards showy, long lasting tulips for maximum impact where space is limited. They will have to wait a bit longer to be planted as it is sunny and warm at the moment and tulips I know do better after a snap of cold weather to kill off any virus.

I’m now toying with the idea of a crab apple. To think of it as a tilt in the direction of an orchard would be absurd but I can provide a sunny spot for a container-happy variety and it will give white flowers in the Spring. More immediately some pots have to be moved aside for the window cleaners, expected shortly. They are carelessly happy to walk along the waist high balustrade to reach the less accessible windows, but watching them makes me anxious, and angry, so I try to create a temporary path through the foliage and larger plants. This however, is ignored as they jump across the balustrade above a 100 foot drop with evident bravado as precarious as the route they have chosen. This is another reminder that I have come rather late to the idea that gardening involves planning and planning ahead, as window cleaners, as well as water, were far from my mind in my initial thoughts for this space, other than of course the over ambitious pond.

I do now have a watering system, thanks to a generous neighbour, but in the early days I relied on a watering can, hanging out of windows and walking along narrow door sills. One day I slewed a full can of (luckily) clean water over a new carpet, so my neighbour’s offer shortly afterwards could not have come at a better time. However, having attached a hose with a long lance to my new watering system, with an excess of enthusiasm one of my first attempts at long range watering went horribly wrong as I hadn’t closed the doors leading on to the walkway from another direction – luckily the books dried and the old wooden chest recovered too but I’m now more careful. I’ve also learned that narrow walkways need tall plants if they are to be easily visible through waist high windows. I now combine watering with wondering, in reality in all seasons, as the wind dries the pots and the rain seldom penetrates in all but the heaviest of downpours.

An early decision (and maybe poor planning) was to remove the sole piece of trellis purchased with the property. Prematurely maybe, as it never occurred to me I might need it since vines or even hops were not in the scheme. However, I now see, and thought then, that although it was providing an effective barrier between the terrace and the northerly wind, it obscured too much. The glimpse of the hills to the northwest has been well worth keeping even at the cost of a good vintage. I have however, conceded that bamboo has its uses and with mixed feelings recently filled a gap in the ‘wind-break’ with a pot of Nandina domestica. A rose by any other name……. whatever it is called, it is a bamboo. Also unplanned was an answer to the question of what to do with leaf litter and the other detritus from my container gardening. Luckily the terrace and walkways all have an array of gravel and pebbles of various sizes around the edges to aid drainage. The flow is generally towards the down-pipes, although not universally successfully, but the margin on the upslope provides the ideal destination for my sweepings and a good enough habitat, particularly for woodlice.

Perhaps I will discover more about insects and how to encourage them (fashionable bee hotels being constrained by my concern to avoid drilling into the ‘common parts’) at a forthcoming local event https://goo.gl/6riyfw when I will be accompanied by a particularly knowledgeable and enthusiastic seven year old.

Although writing reminds me of what I don’t know I am surprised and pleased that I do know something and am beginning to learn more. My roof top preoccupations can’t be compared with proper gardens and gardening but it is encouraging that some experiences are obviously transferable. Now knowing that standard lavenders have a mind of their own I am spurred on to find an answer to the problem of keeping them upright and wonder if a table leg might be the support I’m looking for. Perhaps not so easily available in open ground but solid, adjacent to the wall, just about visible from indoors looking out, and in a relatively sheltered situation I will try again, but not with a pair. Actually not with one of the original two either http://retiringgardener.uk/2017/10/08/trials-and-tribulations/as impatience took over and I wrenched out the lavenders on a particularly windy day, frustrated by the undoing of my plans. Instead I have two Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘red fox’. These caught my eye on a visit to a local garden centre, when tasked to search out and shop on behalf of the allotment, I drifted towards some interesting foliage. Not surprising that they caught my eye as the vivid Autumn colour is spectacular and another claim to fame is their upright growth. They will never be a formal matched pair, but hopefully will be an interesting, new, rather expensive, discovery.

With the days getting noticeably shorter, returning to city life towards the end of summer, leaving behind golden fields and generous gardens, has always been hard. In Spring and Autumn the differences between the two worlds seem bridgeable as cities and the countryside come into leaf, with blossom and new growth having a visible impact, often in sequence, in these different settings. High summer is very different – urban spaces, however large, lose out. However, whether in suburban gardens or country meadows unseasonal colour is a welcome delight.

An anemone in September a few miles away, or a cowslip in October in Oxfordshire, are unexpected. Even more surprising, at least to me, is the extended flowering, disregarding the seasons, of this balcony favourite.  Still magnificent, and promising more, I think it must be an allium. I’ve thought of dividing it, promising half to a friend, but it’s name eludes me. Another friend can identity it but as he came at the height of my agitation about the leak, sadly I can’t now remember what he told me. I will ask again.

Thinking too now, I also wonder whether gardening at the level of individual plants is really gardening at all or is it toying, Marie Antoinette like, avoiding the harder tasks and the worst of the weather, planting pretty plants to be enjoyed by a few visiting pollinators and intimate friends. It doesn’t deter me but it makes me think. The feeding birds can usually be counted on the fingers of one hand and a pond in a pot would never have been colonised by frogs, so beyond buying bird food and retaining some leaf litter there must be more ingenious ways to attract other visitors. Hopefully I will pick up some ideas from the local Pollinators Paths Project.

Looking Ahead

More immediately, phase two of the leak/balcony repairs are planned for next week, with the erection of scaffolding towers, and the return of the workforce. I’m hoping to make the most of their presence as a third olive is growing fast and needs to be moved, actually to be almost directly above the soon to be permanently repaired leak, where it will have plenty of elbow room. Better planning would have been to have put it there in the first place but a swap with the more elegant eucalyptus should be fine, although I do need help to move it. I had thought the olive would take longer to get established but I was wrong. I thought the eucalyptus would need more space. Wrong again. It has an elegant neck, or trunk, and needs space higher up as it’s branches unfold.

Whatever, I am spurred on by much that is going on around me – plans to refresh the gardens below, the evident happiness of my clematises and roses, news that a simpler plan may mean phase three of the balcony repairs could be less disruptive and the determination of so many of my summer plants, including pelargoniums and clematises, to stay in flower. Although the former may have to be ousted when it comes to bulb planting, which is a pity, particularly as I lack a conservatory or cool kitchen to move them on to. I had also been hoping to find a Chinese Bee Tree, Tetradrium daniellii, recommended for its generous supplies for foraging bees, and another potential new arrival. But, I have now learned my lesson and so check the ultimate height and spread of anything unfamiliar and as it aims to reach a height of twelve metres or over I have reluctantly relinquished this idea.

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  1. Have a look at Amelanchiers before you buy a crab apple. The berries are edible though apparently some varieties taste nicer than others, that’s if the birds don’t get them first.

    • Many thanks for suggesting one of my favourite small trees. My enthusiasm for adding a crab apple has already begun to wane but sadly a spreading Amelanchier will be no good either as the sunny spot is much too narrow. So sadly I will never taste the fruits but I could be luckier with a dwarf desert apple, a ‘family’ apple or a cultivated blackberry if unlikely given the altitude.

Trials and Tribulations

A month or so on, the season has turned and the terrace is in a state of comfortable neglect as floods, holidays and idleness have all played their part. The railings have been interwoven with spider’s webs and the occasional queen wasp spotted making a dash indoors, but the olive trees are much less straggly. Thanks to all the advice I’ve been given I have taken my courage in both hands and cut them back. Already they are providing a better frame to the rest of the terrace, with the anticipated bonus of more wind protection for the rest of the terrace as the growth thickens out.

The Autumn tidy up has begun, and as the leaves of the surrounding trees first turn then drop, the views and vistas change, and a church spire appears on the brow of the hill with other buildings and permanent structures reemerging in the 270 degree view.

The necessary further works to ensure no more leaks to the flat below have at last been agreed, but not before some debate and deliberation. The surface of the terrace is part of the demised premises to the property, whilst the walls of the terrace are included in the common parts. However, the actual position of the ‘leak’ is slightly on the rise, precisely I noticed, where one meets the other, and only below the water line in a torrent, for example when a month’s rainfall comes in a day.  http://retiringgardener.uk/2017/08/03/out-of-season/ Whilst for me this legal nicety is intriguing, common sense has taken over from any wish to prolong things, and as the surveyor is also back from a summer away, things can move on. Who owns what, who has responsibility for what, who can do what are complexities which are probably best avoided by living in a house with a garden.

Moreover, news has now emerged of major planned works for next year to ensure the integrity of the roofs of the flats below for future years, and therefore the necessity, when the time comes, for all pots, containers, tables and other clutter to be removed to temporary lodgings so that access is fully available. And with this news the answer to a recurring dilemma – how much temporary and seasonal planting to include, and how much to plan for longer term structure and continuity?

For now any new ideas must be transient, as the intention must be, in the overall scheme of things, to reduce the number of permanent planters until the terrace has been renovated next year. The sweet scented box suggested, and which I had already imagined settled in between a beautiful long flowering rose  (Rosa Harlow Carr – Aushouse) and a cistus, (Cistus x purpureus) will have to wait. Both rose and cistus have coped happily with a somewhat random regime – the rose being underwatered too often and the cistus being rather brutally uprooted in late Spring from a container where it was competing with too many other plants, then re-potted into a container of its own and finally pruned hard – none of which is recommended. Surprisingly though, it has also flowered all summer long and even now, in this recent Indian summer, looks as though it could, yet again, have another surprise in store.

Meanwhile another impatient hellebore has come into bloom. This is apparently more common that I thought but isn’t of interest to the RHS as an example of a rare new species (or do I mean variety?).

I have also realised that the requirement to allow full access to the terrace next year is a temporary solution to another problem – when to replace compost, when to top up and how to dispose of it afterwards. Larger quantities of my spent compost usually end up in landfill along with much else, and the nearby recycling centre takes ‘green waste’, but a new project, also dependent on the absence of builders, is to be more effective in taking garden clippings and plants that have gone over, along with the right sort of food waste, to the allotment for composting. This will necessitate taking everything down in the lift, or the long flight of stairs, and across the soon to be laid new communal carpet.

The Naming of Plants

Planting in pots has its delights – moveability being one, so that at different times of the year Spring bulbs, herbaceous plants or one summer wonders like cosmos can look good from the indoors, looking out on wet days, or piled up and around each other to create an illusion of abundance.

But whatever the time of year and the urge to find new ideas, or repeat old delights, high rise gardening in a minute space has its limitations, although these are often worth challenging. With no room and no inclination to propagate, the majority of the plants I choose come from local garden centres, tried and trusted mail order companies, or are gifts from friends.  As I am lucky enough to benefit from a family allotment, without doing the digging myself, very occasional forays into planting fruit as well as plenty of herbs, are the closest I get to growing edible produce.

I was promised some wild strawberries plants last week. These have travelled far, having begun their journey in a Romanian forest, then settled well in another corner of the Metropolis where the fruit I’m told has been as tasty as in its original home, but fruit-bearing, surprisingly, for a much longer season. Now arrived and apparently eager to start out again on my windy outcrop, this particularly windy afternoon will be given over to planting and the hope of a crop next year. I consider myself very lucky.

I also tried a blueberry this year. Once upon a time, when living in the West Country, I was rather successful with blueberries in pots. The Spring blossom and striking Autumn tints were lovely and the blueberries were delicious. They never made it to the table as I ate as I gardened, but the milder, damper climate suited them and out in the open they would catch the rain. Now they are more reliant on watering with chalky tap-water and not as happy. More triumphantly, though, one of my olives too produces fruit.

So selecting what to grow is often an exercise in restraint and denial. Never easy. Many of the cottage garden plants I love are either unable to cope with the wind or the restrictions of a container (the clue is in the word)  so Japanese anemones which I keep hoping can be persuaded to join the late summer show always protest, and experience has taught me that salvias are happy and penstemon aren’t. Some plants take over and others wilt under the competition, but clematis for all seasons are in their element as I can provide cool roots and allow them to tumble and drift around the railings, whilst being careful to avoid attaching trellis to the walls, cautious as I am about my own injunction to respect the common parts.

At school I had Latin lessons, which isn’t quite the same as being taught Latin. Our mistress would arrive, glass of water in hand, cigarette ash on her jacket, and after carefully putting the glass on her desk begin with ‘question number 1’. We were smart enough to include some incorrect answers in the inevitable ten questions that began each lesson, and somehow got away with it at exam time until ‘O’ Levels (no GCSEs in those days) approached, when some observant parents noticed their daughter hadn’t learned anything. At which point the horticulturally named Miss Beechcroft arrived, and with energy and attention instilled enough Latin for us to pass the exam, but of course it was too late for any real learning to take place. The glass of water was gin and we never saw our first teacher again.

All rather sad and a pity, as Latin would now be useful as from time to time I feel interested in the proper names of my small range of plants, although as I am not particularly good at plant names in English this is likely to be an ambition too far. One exception is Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Tanna’ (well actually it is only the Sanguisorba bit of the name that I can remember) but this favourite, and rather unlikely container plant, has gone on for years wafting and waving for weeks on end. A chance example of what generally does best in my particular conditions – long lasting, forgiving plants without too many dietary or other requirements. Meanwhile an assortment of plant labels sit in an untidy drawer. https://www.claireaustin-hardyplants.co.uk/blog/sanguisorbas

Change of View

I notice that gardening experts often suggest occasional soaks rather than little and often when looking after container grown plants, but as my pots struggle with wind and are often overcrowded, I follow the advice of anyone who suggests that you don’t let the compost dry out – well I do let it dry out because life intervenes, but it is not my intention. However, because I am idle and undisciplined in some ways, as well as impulsive, the displays I want always fall short of the displays in my mind – or maybe being idle and impulsive just goes along with the tensions and uncertainties of gardening and gardens, since plants and habitats have habits of their own.

For several years I used to pause to enjoy taking in the delights of a delicate, pink flowered, well established fuschia in another part of London while waiting for the doorbell to be answered. An unexpected return visit this summer happened to be at a time when the fuchsia should have been in full flower, but it had gone, to be replaced by a very smart, formal front garden. I missed the lovely display but if you garden on a very small scale then other people’s gardens and roof-tops are something to seek out and enjoy, albeit with some wistful longings too. As I’ve travelled up and down the District Line this Summer, the emergence of more plants – on terraces, balconies and platforms too, has been very noticeable, but all I can offer the casual passer-by is a glimpse of green, more or less vibrant depending on the season. Modern apartment blocks with clear-sided balconies generously give onlookers an additional view – of pots and plants and new ideas too, as well as the more than occasional bicycle. The sophisticated, tasteful outside spaces often catch my eye, whereas the brightly/garishly coloured plastic balcony pots remind me I’m a snob. A retiring snob you might say, with a traditional roof terrace, brick sided and heavily railed so it is only seen, for the most part, by friendly visitors who can breach my privacy as I wander out at odd moments, in response to something that has caught my eye or would welcome some attention.

And then there are dilemmas I try and ignore.

Early in the summer, and struggling to manage my instincts for informal planting against the need for some structure, I carefully chose and bought two well matched standard lavender plants that once home looked good in my only pair of identical terracotta pots. I placed them against the terrace wall, framing the view up the hill beyond, and carefully ensured that the asymmetrically arranged pots and containers in between, including the much-loved Sanguisorba, looked good together. And they did but I did not stake the lavenders adequately. The winds arrived from all directions, so the tops appeared to spin round while the fragile roots failed to get a grip. In spite of the wind and my particularly inconsistent watering regime, as I became anxious and couldn’t think what was best for them, knowing that better care at the outset would have been best for them, they have struggled on.

One has maintained its upright stance and produced some flower spikes over the summer, flowering again recently, the other never really seemed happy, didn’t produce any flowers, and is trying to escape from it’s managed shape and now seems to be healthier for it. Once again what to do about pruning has bothered me; after flowering, to maintain the shape, to remove dead growth, what? With anxiety came inaction and a new question. Since they are now less of a pair should I relinquish my ambition for identical twins and split them up so they can offer height and interest separately elsewhere.

Or should I try and reproduce the nurseryman’s original intention and encourage them to match up – having first improved the unsatisfactory staking. This seems the bigger challenge and I might now have the time and inclination to go for it. A fleeting thought that standard bay might be the answer seems a step too far in the direction of formality for this gateway to the woody view, and otherwise suburban, world beyond.

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    • Annie, very interesting to read your gardening blogs. Situated in the middle finger of the Peloponesse, on the west coast an hour’s drive south from Kalamata, in a mountain village 350m above sea level, it is so lovely to be reminded of the gardening seasons in England being away now for just over 17 years. I am increasingly in favour of container gardening, the use of deep beds and being able to work in an easily tidied area. Yes, a wild area is very important if there is room, but as its description suggests, it should be left alone with intervention only necessary if it gets completely out of hand.
      You are very brave to prune an olive tree. True that a swallow – or more likely here a jay – should be able to fly through its open branches. A well-manicured grove is a wonderful sight, whilst the short trunks may vary enormously in girth, the branches, usually three main ones, conform to a strict arrangement. Olive trees in this part of Greece, Mani, have a two year cycle, one of which has severe pruning. This means that there is a heavy crop of fruit one year, and very little the next. In a few weeks olive harvesting begins and can continue until the end of February. Whilst some branches might be removed during harvesting, most pruning, especially at higher elevations, takes place in spring and early summer. It is sad that despite all the hard work in olive production in Greece, only four euros per liter is paid to the grower for the highest quality organic oil. Even worse is that Italians buy the oil wholesale at this price and sell it on for between 8 and 11 euros. Three years ago I planted an olive tree in our daughter’s garden in Hanwell. No doubt I will need to give it a trim in a couple of week’s time.
      The naming of plants is a very important and interesting subject. During my time as a student we were given 20 plant specimens to examine and learn their scientific names, Latin or Greek, each week. This was a valuable experience and by doing so, it was possible to become familiar with plant families. It is difficult here to get information from anyone about the name of a plant, or, indeed, any creature, with the exception of fish. So sad that the ordinary everyday things around us remain nameless to so many people.
      It was wonderful to be reminded of Chelsea Physic Garden. It is one of my favourite places. Within a very small area it has such an important and varied collection of specimens. It was there that I first came across the Chinese Bee Tree, which flowers in August and provides bees with a wealth of forage when there is often very little for them. At that time the tree was called Evodia hupehensis. A closely related tree is Tetradium danielli, but this is going out of favour as it is considered to be invasive.
      Please keep writing!

  1. Good read.
    I have failed to keep a standard lavender upright even planted at ground level and not in a pot.
    Have you tried Japanese anemone Wild Swan? It’s smaller and not invasive like the others so it might just be happier in a pot than the bigger rampant varieties.
    Did you get a picture of that spooky looking sun from your balcony yesterday?
    Sue

Out of Season

Summer-time

With the summer, retirement arrived with all its associated anxieties and uncertainties, as well as a chance to muse and reflect on my garden and gardening. Keen to learn from others who are also gardening ambitiously in rather unlikely high rise situations, where ingenuity is often needed, and with the hope of doing a little bit more to green up the urban sky-line, there is an opportunity in this transitional year for working to give way to writing, and for gardening to have more space, at least in my mind, as this new season in my life begins.

*************************************************************************

August, the time of school holidays, late summer flowers, lingering evening light and early wasps should not be a time for hellebores, or Christmas roses, to be in flower. But next to the lemon verbena and other herbs and flowers much better suited to warm summery conditions, in this rather unsummery summer, they have come into life and flower in some of the containers, protected as it happens from the worst of the wind and wet.

Then, to compound the uncertainty of the seasons, a month’s rain fell in one day and a downstairs neighbour’s ceiling collapsed, so the year’s carefully planned planting with delicate flowers mixing with silver leaved Mediterranean foliage, had to be rapidly moved aside as surveyors and workmen arrived in force to search for the leak.

Once found and temporarily repaired, and with the dismal news that further works would be necessary, it soon became clear that there would be no question of putting things back as before. Some plants have been damaged in the frantic haste of the move, others cannot now be as carefully tended as they need to be, jumbled together and out of reach, and the whole of the walk-way leading to and from the main terrace needs to be more accessible. This translates into fewer plants and containers or differently arranged plants and containers, so after the initial disappointment and the loss of a much loved, favourite scheme things will have to change.

 

Autumn Planning

However, without the certainty yet of a date for the return visit of the workmen, planning ahead for any new scheme for the terrace has stalled and even the arrival of spring bulb catalogues and other temptations prompted by the gardens around have failed to prise me out of a malaise, maybe helpfully, while new ideas have a chance to germinate.

A cousin once pointed out that I don’t like mud – odd for a gardener, so perhaps not surprising that I now find myself gardening on a terrace where the ‘mud’ is contained in pots and which is more or less the same size as my formative gardening experience. Under the watchful eye of our wonderful gardener, who would have had the chance of further education if born later, and if born earlier would have avoided the horrors of four years in the trenches of the First World War, as a little girl I diligently and patiently sifted soil until fine enough to sow seeds for a summer display.

Less patient now, and with time more pressing I have always demanded a lot from the sunny, south facing, wind battered main terrace (2×10 metres), which has included old olives carried up 95 stairs by a removal team as if their weight was inconsequential, old roses, clematis, honeysuckle (a new arrival), surfaces with seasonal planting and containers full of sometimes ill assorted neighbours adjusting to less than ideal conditions, but providing a succession of assorted blooms year after year. Underwatered, overwatered, underfed, overfed they have nevertheless rewarded me, generally, with a constant source of pleasure and interest, including the unexpected – how to explain flowering hellebores in August? But now there is a chance for reflection and perhaps attempting a new approach to the challenge of the aggravating wind.

Harsh winds can approach from any quarter except the north-east, and sheltered spots are limited, so it is a challenging space for insects and other wild-life although bumble bees are reliable visitors from early in the year. Other pollinators arrive later and this year lady-birds in large numbers, hopefully not including the unwanted foreigners. Most intriguing were a pair of wood-peckers (greater spotted I am told) who regularly came to the bird-feeder one after the after, never together, for two or three weeks in early summer. It seemed that they were drawn by the sound of minor scales and arpeggios being played on the clarinet by the open window, but maybe this was a chance association. Tempting also to think they wanted to form the percussion section as their drumming could be heard after they returned to the woodland cover.

Spring Planting

Since the olives thrive and look good all year round (although I am too cowardly to prune them in case I get it wrong) perhaps the well established standard rosemary which had been obstructing the walkway, making watering difficult, could now be enlisted to add to the wind-break. Function nearly always gives way to form in my schemes so I am willing to forego some of the recommended planting ideas for wind breaks, such as bamboo, as it would seem out of place in my high rise cottage style garden, and I have never really taken to it anyway. In place of the rosemary on the walkway I am tempted to move centre stage a small eucalyptus (eucalyptus nicholii) which I first came across in the Chelsea Physic Garden and rather audaciously thought I might grow as well. Thanks to the internet it was quite easily found and is happy enough in a sheltered aspect benefiting from the warmth of the building, is unusual and if the winter is not too harsh will provide an island of continuous silvery green.

All this will, however, have to wait until the repairs are completed, access to all areas is feasible and the plants and pots that have not survived are taken away. But as August gives way to Autumn the intimations of another flowering season have already begun and I have found myself considering new additions to the green fringe surrounding the smaller containers and underplanting.

 

 

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  1. Dear Annie,
    I have never been included in a blog before so I am thrilled but not sure how to go about replying! Still I must congratulate you on an engaging blog which looks so beautiful and elegant (why am I not surprised!) It is really interesting and I look forward to the next edition. I too had a section of the garden cordoned off for me as a little girl, but I haven’t progressed as well as you have–still I hope you will spur me on.

  2. Dear Annie
    This is great. Don’t be afraid to prune the olives if necessary. I have one in Yorkshire on the terrace and it has to be hacked back regularly. If you don’t have one get a Christmas/sweet box. Sarcoccoca. They are evergreen, seem happy in pots and although they look a bit boring the tiny winter flowers smell fantastic and they seem to throw their scent around the vicinity even when it’s windy.

    • Thank you for the pruning advice – another friend said something similar but I still keep remembering I was once told you should prune olives so that a swallow can fly through and I then feel perplexed! But I love the sarcoccoca suggestion.

      • I’m sure the olive pruning advice relating to swallows is accurate if you want them to fruit. Lots of light and air amongst the branches just like fruit trees really. Mine grows against the wall and reaches the second floor windows if I don’t chop it. It has a few minute olives about the size of my little fingernail.

  3. Dear Annie, you are an inspiration and with fantastic ideas in arranging flower pots in your little garden.I’m waiting for the next post!!

  4. Your reference to taking O levels gives away that you are a youngster (which I suppose we all knew) as O levels are to me new fangled things which displaced the trusty School Certificate!!!

  5. Annie, I’m very ignorant about blogs so this comment will probably be added to the others, even though its not about ‘Out of season’. It’s actually a musing on large and small and shared problems. Your terrace could not be more different from our large chaotic paradise, but getting rid of unwanted organic material is still a problem. Had you thought of a pulley system? I also wondered about whether you could kill two birds with one stone (not that you’d want to destroy wildlife in the city) by erecting a trellis. In small spaces adding another dimension might be tempting and at the same time it might reduce the wind damage. Don’t mention it to Jerry or he’ll suggest a vine! Actually why not ‘Chateau Putney’?