Scents and Sensibilities

The Art of Compromise

A lingering late summer lunch, in an enviably lawned London garden teeming with bees and butterflies, not least because the plants were chosen with casual beauty, abundance and wild life in mind, was in sharp contrast to the increasingly cramped quarters aloft on the roof terrace as the days shortened. As an afterthought, many of the small and medium sized plants in the larger planters had a growth spurt after their summer dormancy in response to the drought, and the Liliputian Verbena Bonariensis, whilst no match for the full height variety, seized its moment, bushing out and subsequently flowering for weeks on end.

Now, by agreement, the Autumn tidy-up involves keeping the possibilty of reaching the seating area in mind to enjoy the emerging views. The church spire on the brow of the hill opposite is still partially obscured but will soon be fully exposed, and the 270 degree vistas from the Chilterns round to Canary Wharf will open up as the surrounding trees drop their leaves, although to see the extreme margins a certain amount of neck-craning and clambering over pots is required. No matter. It is Autumn, the leaves are thinning and tumbling down as light streams onto the balcony and beyond, and the re-connection with the wider world and the seasonal colours is in itself particular and a joy.

In truth the olive trees, bay and roses have flourished this year, and anything upwards of waist height, and growing in a large container, has unsurprisingly more or less enjoyed the sun-drenched summer, admittedly with my watering, whereas the occupants of the smallest pots and containers have withered in the face of the difficulty of contending with prolonged dry spells. My more experimental planting has also been a very limited success and I have finally accepted that trying to grow Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘red fox’ in exposed drying conditions, in a cramped pot, has been a rather expensive failure. I’m not sure that they were planted with the addition of mycorrhizal fungi powder either. I was initially sceptical of the life-giving powers of this wonder drug but it works, is not unduely expensive when compared with the risk of losing a beautiful plant, and as long as you remember at the key moment to apply it, that is when it can be added to compost and  container as they are ready to receive the plant, and the roots are primed and ready too, I commend it. Learning to to spell mycorrhizal is more challenging.

So Mediterranean plants it is, together with the unexpected delights of strawberries growing happily close to the building under the shade of neighbouring plants. With mixed feelings I am now giving the larger plants, including a well behaved cistus and multiple wild and untamed lemon verbena, a particular favourite with me and the bumble bees, their head and stacking up the smaller trip hazards with their shrivelled contents.

I will miss them and it is all beginning to look rather neat, although behind the scenes the plant debris is undisturbed and the long lost plastic bottle insect home (made Blue Peter style with the visiting then seven year old) has been spotted embedded in a corner behind an olive tree where it is to remain as permanent housing for the plentiful local insects. The late-summer salvia-filled planters are now wonderfully scent filled too and rather unexpectedly the seating area finds itself surrounded by roses, lavender, the sweet smelling box Sarcococca confusa, sage and rosemary. It could have been a carefully considered pot-pourri but I was looking for shape and texture as I moved things around and then discovered scent.

Green is the Colour

Since leaving the West Country and moving to the South West margin of London my olive trees have thrived on the southerly terrace, producing fruit which I expected the tits would eat.

Transported from a large exposed balcony, with no surrounding tree tops, this sunnier site had been a popular feeding station for numerous tits flocking to the infant fruits which they feasted on with delight. But not so now, which had puzzled me and led me to think that my regularly topped up peanut feeder was more tempting than the olives. But maybe not. I now learn that feeding birds head first for the most easily spotted fruit such as the brightest red rowan berries, and less distinct, softer coloured, yellow or white fruits are not so popular, with green fruit even further down the pecking order. Presumably this is to save energy searching, rather than a taste preference, but I have no claims myself to be an ornithologist although I know a man who does and will ask. It may have been that the green olives had actually been more visible against the silvery olive leaves in the very different light left behind. Whereas now it is green on green although I am interested to see what happens next as this summer’s heat has allowed the olive fruit to begin to ripen, and for the moment they are colouring up fast.

I’m also not sure where violet sits on the dietary spectrum but I’m secretly hoping that the exceptional pigment of the beauty berry Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’ is not a popular avian delicacy. I’ve been waiting for weeks for the unique colour to emerge and selfishly want to savour it for a little while longer. It is a surprising delicate treasure at this time of year.

The garden below is tree stocked and shrub covered and for historic reasons an irregular shape. Mid-summer had called for a flight to the sun (actually the sun was all around) and having booked a taxi to the airport, a somewhat relaxed approach to time-keeping prevailed. Nevertheless, once the taxi had arrived below with the usual last minute flurry and fluster all was assembled and the parked taxi located. However, there was no driver, which was difficult to explain and for a while disorientating until noticing that he was at prayer, kneeling in a peaceful spot, camouflaged by the greenery. When ready he rolled up his mat, greeted us, put his mat in the boot and drove away on time, having, I noticed, made an adjustment to his call to prayer and accomodated our time keeping. So I was pleased that we had been able to reciprocate and accomodate his need for a peaceful spot.

And if camouflage is required I might have the answer since my gardening glasses have a certain horticultural charm: old lenses, green frames, held together by a yellow paper clip – not a good look I am told but Hey!

New Arrivals

For some reason that I have been unable to explain completely to myself, and disinterests others, as I cross the threshold onto the balcony (and it was ever thus entering my own personal gardening space) I relinquish my hair-styled, make-up covered public self for the randomness of early morning nightwear or end of day disshevelment. I immerse myself, only to be seen by a few close neighbours on nearby balconies, and I suppose over-flying pilots with long lenses who I expect have better things to do than wonder about my rummaging and tinkering below. Of course sometimes I get caught out and an insistent door-bell requires a public encounter of an unexpected kind, although I try and remember to remove my paper-clipped glasses.

Meanwhile other recent arrivals have included carefully chosen Spring bulbs. The selection is the result of several evenings careful thought, recollections of previous favourites and the temptations of catelogues. Height, colour and estimated time of flowering are generally the governing principles but I’m not quite sure why I bother since as I have mentioned before, when it comes to planting I put them where I can and the carefully planned schemes are quickly abandoned. The results of impulse buying might I think, be just as pleasing, although first choosing and then planting does hold out for the possibility of another year, another season, something to savour, not to be rushed.

I now also have high expectations of the newest arrival – my ‘Benjamin’. In a rather unnecessary moment a few days ago I referred to a friend’s youngest child as her ‘Benjamin’. There was no reason to think she would be familiar with this French usage and she understandably took me to have forgotten her son’s name, which I hadn’t. The Biblical reference, although true, didn’t add anything and it would have been much more straightforward to have kept to plain English. Similarly though I always feel particularly protective of any new plant until sure of their intentions, and wonder if they will adapt to the exposed conditions and erratic care. Those that can and do accommodate to the prevailing conditions, remain particular favourites.

So with some trepidation I recently collected a replacement fruiting cherry tree Cherry Pigmy Kordia lovingly sourced and carefully stored, waiting to be planted. It has a beautiful form and is now happily installed (presumably my happiness rather than the plant’s) so I’m hopeful all will be well. In the meantime I have planted it in association with the essential micorrhizal fungal powder (see above) and having acquired some additional horticultural knowledge won’t be tempted to prune except in the summer, with July and August, I read, the recommended months. Silver leaf disease is a condition I’ve never heard of and is spread by air-borne spores, but the cuts heal quickly in high summer so other months are best avoided. Otherwise the omens are good.

When at its best my well-turned-out bijoux roof terrace speaks for itself as well as perhaps in part also speaking for me. Otherwise, it is work in progress and an opportunity for further experimentation.







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Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

A Little Knowledge

Lingering conversations with friends are often rather shaming as a real depth of knowledge on topics as wide ranging as Medieval history, 60s pop music, economics, architecture and yes, horticulture are difficult to match, with my sound-bite knowledge of more or less anything. Sadly no specialised subjects and shaming because I’ve often been something of a magpie – picking up other people’s trifles and treasures without the discipline, or thirst for knowledge, to really study a subject. But I am quite good at getting away with it, and as I am eligible for a bus pass, and have listened in to enough discussions and talked to enough people (and I am certainly interested in other people and their lives and experiences) I can convince myself and others that I have something to say, while learning a bit, and sometimes quite a lot, along the way.

So too with the blog.

As each post emerges I find that I have discovered something about the roof terrace I hadn’t noticed before, and that I’ve learned a bit more about container gardening too, while enjoying the comments and feedback, and the prompts to consider options I hadn’t thought about. One option I had hoped would develop into a reality was a ‘mini-orchard’. To this end I was given a very carefully sourced fruiting cherry early in the year but as regular readers will know, it has struggled and today I noticed, that either in spite of, or because of, my various administrations, has at last, very sadly, relinquished all signs of life.

Meanwhile a mature oak tree on the allotment site is a rich source of acorns each Autumn for marauding and hoarding squirrels. The sight of young emerging oaks among the bean poles is commonplace and unremarkable and frequently destined for compost. Aloft, on the other hand, a carefully tended acorn, now small oak, is treasured and will hopefully continue to prosper after its promising start, before in time also becoming compost or more optimistically re-located to a garden seeking established native plants or trees. But for now I will enjoy it while also very much missing the promise of my own hand-picked cherries. I will also contemplate the network of underground burrows and earthworks which are undermining the trees and shrubs in the garden below – with foxes probably to blame.

Learning and Lore

My knowledge of the urban fox, like much else, is superficial and often derived from snatched moments in the car while listening to Radio 4. I first saw images of urban foxes prowling around, in a memorable BBC documentary made in Bristol, at a time which seems now to be in the black and white era, pre-colour televison, but that I think is in fact conflating time past with infra-red pictures that were taken at night and were shown in black and white.

Hereabouts foxes frequently criss-cross the roads at dusk or when food is about, and 20 minute sound bites on Radio 4 have competition from Google and the Internet as the fount of all, albeit limited, knowledge.

At meal times my father made regular trips from the table to his study to unearth an obscure fact or detail, either to satisfy his own considerable thirst for knowledge or to provide the evidence for his side of an argument. Wikipedia can do the same, as long as a ‘no screens at the table’ rule doesn’t hold sway. I now know, have known for about 20 minutes, that the first known version of  ‘Mighty Oaks…….’ comes in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ 1374, where the line ‘As an oak cometh of a litel spyr’ (sapling) can be found. Let’s hope that my spyr does at least become a recognisable oak.

I’m not sure what Chaucer would have made of the global exchange of plants, but another tale of mixed fortunes concerns my ‘Eucalyptus nicholii‘. Only one survived of the original three purchased for their feathery leaves and elegant drooping habit, combined with modest height. One has flourished and withstood drought (which crisps them up), cold and irregular feeding, but the other two in time were too exposed to the cold winds and too far away from the warmth of the building to thrive, so I am trying again, one at a time. It has arrived, looks in good heart and will shortly be planted on, which if I am to follow the instructions involves the complications of finding a bigger air pot of the right size, applying the supplied slow release sulphur chips over the soil surface and then dressing with bark chips. Clearly I have a lot to learn about the care and nurture of eucalypti.

Spreading the Word

What I also learned reading the sale notice from the supplier Grafton Nursery, is that for each eucalyptus tree sold the nursery makes a contribution to ‘Business for Good’ which helps to supply clean water to parts of the world without, so if planning on buying a eucalptus this might be the supplier for you.

Another charity which I have only recently heard about is The Cindy Appleyard Foundation. Before retirement and the allure of life at a different pace, my working life involved working with children and families who were facing difficulties in one way or another. So this charity, which supports families in the most heart-wrenching of situations, when ordinary family life is disrupted, caught my eye.

I did at one time consider being a volunteer for a gardening project which was designed to help the ill or elderly, and would be equally helpful for families at a time of crisis with no time to garden. But I was cowardly and decided that my temperament, which tends to the bossy and controlling, might not be well suited to carrying out the owners’ wishes. I was probably right but it’s nothing to be proud of.

Beginning Again

Clematii are reshooting now that the promised rain and cooler weather have replaced the scorching days, hellebores have surprisingly been in flower for weeks, although I’m getting used to their irregular habits, and looking around there are still roses in flower, pelargoniums in flower and a great deal of greenery as the plants which have conserved their energies this hot, dry summer are hopefully readying themselves for a spectacular display next year.

And armed with advice from Monty Don (of Gardeners’ World) I will begin again too, since growing fruit in pots he describes as the ‘good-life in miniature‘. His potted orchard consists of plums, lemons, oranges, blueberries, a walnut, an apricot, mulberries, apples and a couple of olive trees.

I wonder why he doesn’t include cherries since they too (as mine was) can be bought on suitable dwarfing stock – perhaps I can ask. Meanwhile his other choices are rather daunting, although as I have three olives bearing fruit I could say I have a bit of a head start. I’m not sure that anything requiring winter shelter is going to work, so that rules out oranges and lemons as well as apricots, but the idea of a walnut is intriguing, and I can keep trying with my long suffering blueberry plant. It needs a companion and it needs rain, rather than tap water, to keep it going, but this year there was no option and unless I’ve skipped over the relevant section, Monty doesn’t mention pruning which I think I also need to bone up on.

The idea of a walnut in a pot might have cheered my father who was particularly fond of the nuts. My childhood garden had a beautiful spreading walnut tree of the right height and with the right canopy to provide dappled shade for summer meals enjoyed beneath. The kitchen however, was some way from the walnut tree so meals ‘en plein air’ involved trapsing with trays and trolleys the length of the house, up and down steps and across the much pampered grass. Because the carefully tended lawn was so precious, and occasionally used for games of croquet, the heavy wooden table was folded out and back again for every meal, frequently trapping our fingers. Chairs and cushions would follow. In late summer the crowning glory you might say, was the shower of walnut shells from above, as much to my father’s particular frustration the squirrels got there first, just before the nuts were fully ripe and ready to drop, and would sit along the branches eating nuts and shedding shells.

A picnic on the lawn might on the whole have been easier, but as I’m now more inclined to gravitate to grassy slopes (easier to get up from) rather then flat plains whenever there’s a choice, I have become more accepting of this long remembered elaborate summer ritual.

Up and Away

This long, hot summer has confirmed what I already knew, that lingering is essentially a garden activity rather than an accompaniment to high rise living. Here sun and wind, and in my case the essential compromise – upright chairs rather than anything more conducive to a siesta, limit the lingering. But plants need space (hence the upright chairs) and wild life need plants.

No squirrels or foxes to disturb the peace in this somewhat inaccessible spot, but extraordinarily wild life aplenty, with insects of all sorts enjoying the unkempt marginal areas at the foot of the parapet walls, occasional butterflies, although the effort of reaching a limited reward is barely in their favour, and pollinators enjoying a bumper year.

My personal favourites are the bumble bees, which come early in the year and stay late as the days shorten. As with a favourite child in small and subtle ways, as well as my deliberate planting choices, the setting has priviledged these faithful, gravity defying and photogenic visitors. My plan is to learn more about them since there are twenty-four varieties (or twenty-five apparently if you include the re-introduced ‘Short-haired bumblebee’) of which I understand only seven or eight species are widespread and abundant. Next year I plan to linger a bit longer and take greater note of my particular bumbles and their distinctive features. I may then go beyond my rather limited classification into ‘big, fat bumbles and the rest’.

But if one of the rewards of this year’s combination of weather, planting and horticultural management has been plenty of pollinators, with birds the story has been rather different as too many displaced feral pigeons, unsettled by nearby building works, gradually took over the water bath and food supplies as summer hotted up. Only the tits, camouflaged in the olive trees, survived the cut backs and continued to enjoy the peanuts, together with the occasional nuthatch in transit.

But the pigeons have gone, back to their familiar roosts, and an Autumn tidy-up is due. So with a redistribution of plants and people (chairs under the roof overhang, plants in the open) and more protection for the small garden birds hopefully, with the shorter days, and when experiencing shortages of food, the robins and blackbirds will return.


It is nevertheless a tricky balance as I’ve had a request for fewer plants, and more space to stretch out, which is also difficult to ignore.









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  1. You gave the cherry tree the best chance to spring back to life! The good news is that I contacted the supplier and they are very gratefully sending a replacement cherry tree next month ! Keen to hear better more cheery cherry tree stories in the blog! I do like the idea of growing nuts- how do almonds fair in this country ?

    • I think you might need to travel further South for almonds but I am hoping to include a miniature walnut alongside the new cherry – which is wonderfully generous of you and the supplier – thank you very much!

  2. I have never really taken to Bonsai trees but it might be fun to try with one of the oak seedlings from the allotment?

    • I’ve waited until now to reply as both the idea of returning the infant oak to a hedgerow sounds the right thing to do, whereas bonsaiing is tempting although like you I’m not always sure that I could be fond of the resulting tree. Maybe this is the moment to find out? The average temperature on the balcony has been much too high this summer for a plant that is at is best in the cool of the forest or growing in wide open spaces, but it seems to have revived again so I’m keeping my options open. Many thanks for the suggestion which is encouragingly unexpected.

The Rain it Raineth

Let it Rain

There are various schools of thought when it comes to watering containers, but at height, with windy conditions and a preference for the aesthetic appeal of terracotta, my view is that letting pots dry out completely is a risk. Even ‘Mediterranean’ plants (including lavenders and cistus) when confined to the limitations of a planter often need more water than you might think to flower and to flourish. I used to favour water retentive ‘pellets’ but as I am disinclined to measure I tended to get the proportions wrong resulting in cold jelly-like amalgamations amongst powdery compost. Now I generally water using a watering can for feeding and a hose for watering, with grateful thanks to my neighbours and their outside tap. So in the recent drought conditions I have devoted a considerable number of hours to leaning out of windows offering a life support system to which ever plants have been in reach.

Once upon a time I regularly travelled between London and the West Country and in long hot summers would watch the straw coloured grass give way to green as I made the journey home to the milder, wetter West. Even now, parched grass evokes memories of arriving with anticipation at southern holiday destinations in late evening at the end of an uncomfortable flight, and next morning being confronted by unfamiliar scents and vegetation – shrub sized cacti being the most exotic.

But the chance to linger on the sun baked balcony, nurturing the illusion of being part of the ‘olive belt’, has now gone, with the arrival of forty-eight hours of memorably heavy, albeit intermittant rain. The high rise olives are actually heavy with fruit, which used to be a popular treat favoured by the West Country tits. However, although the trees have made the journey east to the Metropolis and are happy aloft, the local birds, tits of all sorts, although regular visitors, seem to prefer peanuts to olives and leave the fruit to first fatten and then drop.

Time Passes

Earlier in the summer I nurtured the hope that the visiting, soon to be eight-year-old gardener, would enjoy some time on the balcony inspecting the ‘wild life area’, advising on insect homes and inbetween doing a bit of weeding in the far flung corners of this high rise spot. But times have changed, the balcony has become a perfect plane and crane spotting spot, and his true love is the allotment where there are potatoes to be dug, beans to be picked, sweetcorn to be inspected, and onions to dry as well as the essential weeding and watering.

A few weeks before he requested pumpkins ready for Halloween, and although size is not always everything, the giant Wallace Whoppers were carefully selected, planted, put in the cold frame and neglected. So in order to redeem the situation I used a rather disproportionate amount of time and effort looking for replacements, and rather than seeds found some Jack O’Lantern pumpkin plants which fortunately quickly established themselves in the ground, but as the name suggests are promising to be somewhat diminutive in size. Serendipitously while looking for a late sowing variety of beans I luckily spotted and bought some substitute Wallace Whopper seeds. Since the weather was warm and sunny, and my watering attentive, the seeds germinated quite quickly, and the plants were planted.

Now several weeks later, and having enjoyed the sun, they are not only growing well but their leaves are providing much needed shade for other allotment crops, particularly the nearby carrots and beetroot which are turning into ‘mini whoppers’ themselves. And nothing is stopping the production of courgettes, retarded a bit by the drought, but still cropping, and exhausting both my enthusiasm for new recipes, and the storage space in the kitchen. By tradition, a wall by the allotment is used for any surplus crops in exchange for an informal ‘neighbourhood watch’ scheme, but the direct route, straight from plant to compost bin, is becoming ever more attractive, without the inconvenience of cooking inbetween.

This summer the allotment has been a quiet and peaceful retreat, with only the occasional murmurings of Radio 4 breaking the sound barrier, although frequently much too hot to linger beyond essential maintenance. While aloft on the balcony the scene has often been alluringly beautiful as flora and fauna happily mingle in the sun, but particularly at week-ends, the calm is often interrupted by deafening noise as motor-bikes roar south, leaf blowers at the nearby school come into action and builders up the road work overtime. All accompanied by the shriek of parakeets.

However, abruptly, as if responding to a conductor’s baton, the noise will stop and once again this beautiful oasis can recover a sense of peace and tranquility.

The Birds and the Bees

I can report that often after picking the last of the peas and beans, lifting the first crop of potatoes, smelling the early sweet peas and doing a certain amount of allotment maintenance it would be time to go, leaving the peaceful site largely taken over by butterflies and pollinators, but much too hot for more hard work.

Deadheading the cosmos was always too erratic and it quickly became obvious that the dahlias would be on the losing side in any competetion. Wrong variety, too overcrowded, planted too late, too dry, soil not rich enough (perhaps in need of visiting wood pigeons) while a WhatsApp photo showed a dahlia at the prize winning end of the spectrum and something to emulate another time.

Meanwhile back on the balcony, while roses or rosemary are often plants for remembrance, for me it is wild marjoram – which would probably be very happy on the allotment but not so (as yet) on the balcony, and rather like attempts at managing mysterious medical ailments by trying too many different remedies which only confuse the picture, so too with this herb, which is still in need of an appropriate herbal remedy. However, I have been wonderfully compensated by the arrival of another ‘weed’ which now stands at over two foot, gives the bumble bees a  treat whenever they are passing, and faithfully offers beauty and abundant flowers week after week.

Help with identification would be welcome as I’m inclined to forfeit more sophisticated planting next season for more weeds of this sort – hoping that it is not on the prohibited list.

A Tale of Two Cherries

But all is not well in this illysian roof garden.

My Kojo No Mai Japanese cherry came through the Winter, and the Beast from the East, produced a wonderful, albeit brief display of snow-white blossom and a healthy cover of young leaves and extension growth on the branches, but then as the drought took hold, a rather curious distribution of leaf loss emerged.

The distal extremities continued to flourish while close to the centre of the tree, and incidently to the railings, all signs of leaves, leaf buds and health was vanishing fast – all down to a thieving magpie, which admitedly was probably thirsty, and upset by the not always consistent supplies of water, and was taking revenge by removing all the young, succulent, leaf buds.

Hopefully the tree will recover, although I now have an even more ambivalent relationship with the larger birds that swoop down for food.

However, much more disappointing, has been the repeated infestations of cherry black-fly that have taken over my eating cherry and defied manual removal, soapy-water spray, lady-bird ‘therapy’, surgical removal and much else besides. It will have to be found a new home on the allotment and given life-support treatment until it can hold it’s own.

Nevertheless this early late summer season has much to commend it as the urgency of keeping things going has been relinquished and the tapestry of plants, mostly doing their own thing, is an alluring combination of muted colours and soft scents, still a favourite haunt of  bumble bees.




Even on this minute scale, redesigning and re-configuring the roof garden goes on. Some plants have done well and taken over, some have failed and the project to provide a more secluded seating area, shielded from the wind, has only been a partial success. True it is less draughty but it is so overcrowded that anything more social than one and a half chairs is impossible to fit in – I’ve had a request for space to put a tray for drinks of all sorts, but this would involve clearing the tiny round table of plants so has yet to be accommodated, although I can see that the trade off might be worth while.

A wisteria which arrived as an unpromising six inch stick-like specimen is now rambling through neighbouring plants, including the bay, olive and other plants offering support, so will soon be relocated. Wild strawberry plants are looking healthy, fuschias are preparing for shorter cooler days, and the catalogues offering spring bulbs are beginning to arrive. Loose abandonment and the limitations of space and circumstances will soon, once again, gradually give way to potting and planning.



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  1. Sweet Marjoram to quote – is stomachic, calmative choleretic, anti-spasmodic and a weak sedative – so it caterers for most things!! As well as flavouring vegetables and increasing “sex drive” in females – and presumably helping bruising thereafter! Now it is up to you …..

    • I didn’t know that wild marjoram was so useful so I hope the advice I’ve been given ( to import some rich chalky soil onto the balcony) will work well for next year……. I do think it is lovely so best of all good for the soul!

    • Well I hope that if I can have some of the compost that’s usually kept for the vegetables my dahlias do better next year…….but the thought of a competition will spur me on, hopefully, for better things.

Guano and Other Stories

Unintended Consequences

For several weeks, waking up in the long early mornings has been accompanied by a now familiar tapping sound as a pair of plump wood pigeons use the coping stones as a footpath from one side of the balcony to the other. Their early morning waddle is in search of water, although a gusty night, or oversight on my part, may mean they are out of luck.

Meanwhile high summer and the intense pleasure of gardening (frustrations notwithstanding) has somewhat taken over from musing and reflecting on life on the roof garden. The limited space is becoming an ever more cramped and over crowded succession of colours and textures and some more or less successful new ideas, including several additions of Tulbaghia ‘Purple Eye’ which are enjoying the warm days and tolerate the chilly winds. Problematically, although the pollinators seem to be happily enjoying the abundance, reaching the small seating area is becoming increasing difficult for anyone hoping for a quiet cup of coffee, as the plants spilling out of their containers are restricting the already limited opportunities to walk across this garden in miniature. This is a pity as the carefully chosen additions to the informal wind break have helped to moderate the impact of the wind.

The limitations of space also occasionally mean that bags of compost overnight in the main bedroom, which is a storage solution that is surprisingly well tolerated.

Noticeably too, the oldest of the olive trees, which I pruned last year with a certain amount of trepidation, and is now standing about eight feet tall, looks particularly handsome. This is in spite of the vicious winds earlier in the year and I can only assume that its exposed high-rise position is reminiscent of a Greek hillside. I have fed it from time to time (never very systematically) and watered it too, since a life-time spent in a cramped container requires a certain amount of assistance. However, one evening when heading to that end of the balcony, hose-pipe in hand, I realised that rather than whiffs of the scent of lavender or rose I was picking up the all too unwelcome, but distinctive smell of guano – ‘the accumulated excrement of bats and seabirds (or in my case wood pigeons) – useful as a fertilizer and with an extremely pungent and acrid smell’.

Several years ago I went to the Antarctic Peninsular. This involved not only sailing through the spectacular ice wilderness but opportunities to disembark in groups to observe the local wild life, all carefully controlled to avoid too much disturbance. We were warned that the stench of guano would be eye-watering and that we should strictly obey the injunction not to go beyond the red-line and approach the penguins, gathered in their thousands. We did as we were told, although since the penguins lacked language and literacy they curiously came towards us and crossed the line to surround us, giving them, at least momentarily, the upper hand.

However, the roof garden, mostly, looks a blowsy picture with more to come as the summer unfolds. Clematii come and go in turn, the roses too and there have been one or two unexpected treats. A gift of Anisodontea, a mallow native of South Africa, has flowered profusely, attracting insects the while, and the olives have all endured the winter woes. They then produced probably too much flower but since the bumble bees are particularly fond of their pollen, and are enjoying the abundance, and the tits will, I hope, enjoy the infant fruit in due course, I will happily sit back and share their pleasure.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”

In the winter months, when I am perusing gardening magazines, books or the internet in search of new ideas for the summer ahead, planting for wildlife is often in my mind – so bee friendly plants which I now know involve particular shaped flower parts for visiting pollinators, shrubby plants and trees as cover for visiting birds and a succession of flowers from early hellebores and rosemary, spring bulbs and summer buddleia (never my greatest success), with the salvias and verbenas lingering on into Autumn. And at the margins the essential neglected insect friendly corners remain mostly undisturbed.

The possibility of being part of a wildlife corridor both adds to the interest and focus for the planting but regrettably also engenders a certain smugness, which was heightened when the visiting young gardener referred to one end of the balcony as the ‘wild-life area’. Well I have tried, and insect houses, bird feeders and careful planting have all played a part, but it was an overly-flattering observation since my relationship with the local wild life has been a bit turbulent at times.

The aphids (greenfly on most of the balcony, blackfly on the fruiting cherry) left the roses and my newly acquired cherry ravaged. My benign regime of dilute washing up liquid, may as they say have resulted in clean aphids, but no limitation of damage – manual removal became a regular occupation but I was quickly out manoeuvered, so taking a leaf out of my neighbours’ book I used my on-line shopping skills to order some ladybirds, which duly arrived with instructions.

It felt harsh to put the ladybirds in the fridge for 30 minutes as they had already been tossed around in the post, and putting water for them to drink directly on the leaves near the release sites, was difficult to implement, but with help from a pencil (as prescribed) the ladybirds were re-housed across the roof garden with a particular high density located in the area around the cherry tree.

I have not seen any ladybirds since, and they may have gone into hiding, but the aphid population did seem to be a bit less for a while, although history does not relate whether this was an association or cause and effect.

A large white butterfly (presumably a Large Cabbage White) has just fluttered past my elevated window on this high rise site. Arriving or departing I’m not sure, but extraordinarily they do visit, small blues too, leaving me truly amazed by the ambition of the pollinators and other insects that regularly home in on the balcony even on gusty days like today.

Subsequently, in the midst of the aphid epidemic, and with the rambling rose visibly stressed and failing fast, I began a regime of heavy pruning wherever the damage was greatest and quickly reduced the rambler to a collection of sticks, rather than the  sprawling beauty it had once been. In my haste I failed to consider the impact on the garden birds, regular visitors to the carefully placed feeding station, screened by the rambler, tight up against the parapet wall, and visible through the bedroom window. Relocation to the nearby olive was not without consequences.

I abandoned the old feeder and replaced it with new feeders offering different menus and placed at different heights within the cover of the olive – but the tits, robins, blackbirds and others were deterred by the magpies and bolder wood pigeons who quickly asserted themselves. And thus began the new order of things – I would rearrange the feeders, the larger birds would quickly find a way though or under the silvery foliage whilst driving the smaller birds away, and with their appetites sated the pigeons in particular would linger, and I now realise fertilize the olive tree.

However, while the birds continue to enjoy the neighbouring garden trees the rambler is recovering fast and I am hopeful that the original feeding regime will be restored, at least in time for the shorter days.

Garden Envy

It is churlish to suggest that sitting out, glass in hand, surrounded by tree tops, and with swallows swirling above, the balcony is not a source of great pleasure, enviable in its own way. But at this time of year, in these mid-summer moments, it doesn’t fulfill all the hopes that come with languid days, the chance to linger with family and friends and the memories born of sunny days.

For that I think you need grass.

And with grass, if you are fortunate, come pop-up cricket pitches, deep flower borders, space in sun or shade and a chance to show off plant combinations too big for a balcony or with scents blown away by the high-rise gusts. Unless it’s a beautiful rose managing to provide both.

Meanwhile imaginative high rise gardening is expanding locally and elsewhere and a ride on the nearby section of the District Line is now a sight to behold, with ‘Bee Friendly Society’ raised beds at every station. Although they can’t quite compete with wild life friendly gardens offering rare sightings of nocturnal visitors, such as hedgehogs enjoying a mid-night feast of mealworms or bird-table scraps.

Gardening Notes

The Echium is flourishing in the allotment surrounded by cosmos ready to pick and dahlias beginning to emerge, while the late planted sweet peas continue to struggle upwards. The mare’s tails in the neighbouring strip are ready to undermine this new planting but I’m told will be less troublesome in a month or so’s time.

On the other hand, in a shady corner of the balcony a Hellebore is coming in to flower, presumably mistaking shade for winter even though day time temperatures are currently in the mid 20s and I’ve just cut back the last of last year’s flower stalks.

It is odd that early flowering Hellebores seem to have become something of a speciality on this windy, sun soaked, high rise, generally shade lacking spot – but all are welcome.

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  1. Poor M – as well as compost in the main bedroom you are going to have Tulbaghia and Anisodontea as well (in the winter) and presumably the Hellebores in summer!!

    • Well I am hopeful that as another variety of Tulbaghia was even flowering while it snowed last winter (presumably because the roots were still warm enough) the new plants will manage too if I can find a sheltered spot. Over-wintering the Anisodontea I can see will be much more challenging, but I have got the possibility of using a space surrounded by the warmth of the building on three sides. Pelargoniums too have survived with their backs against the bedroom wall and their faces catching the winter sun but I agree this is all rather optimistic.

  2. It all looks lovely. By the sound of it I wouldn’t be surprised if the pigeons have a go at nesting in the olive tree. They only seem to need a few twigs for a nest. Have your tried those squirrel proof bird feeders?

    • I hadn’t anticipated nesting pigeons, but serendipitously a shoot from a new clematis has scrambled through the olive, hopefully obstructing the path of any birds seeking a new home – I’m not sure that clematii climbing through olives are a recommended plant combination but actually particularly lovely when the early light catches the silver leaves.

In the Pink

Bliss it is


Today it is warm and still, with the promise of heat to come. The heat will inevitably bring its own challenges, including the essential watering, but for the moment the birdsong is soaring above the traffic noise below while the sun dances on the remaining tulip petals, and the tits busy themselves toing and froing, from water bath to feeder, and back again.

The distant horizon is still visible, peeping through the early summer leaf canopy surrounding the balcony, which in its turn is now full of life, with plants of all sorts about to burst into colour; thrift, roses soon and the cistus poised to break into flower, all adding to the  attractions for the plentiful flying insects.

Arguably the density of plant life is excessive and I should be, could have been, more selective – less risk of fungal disease, less maintenance, fewer trip hazards.

But this late Spring, behind the abundant display, admittedly now predominately green as this season’s flowers fade away, there have been some keenly felt losses including the evocative Snakes’s Head Fritillary which didn’t return this year. Although often surprisingly happy planted in a pot this is evidently now a step too far from their natural habitat, memorably the arrival point of childhood pilgrimages to the flower-filled, low lying, college meadows my father loved.

A Cautionary Tale

I am at my most carefully organised and systematic when doing an end of year inventory and subsequently ordering plants to replace, supplement or for their seasonal charms. I’m no expert colourist but I know from experience that attempts to add ‘pops’ of colour require a more sophisticated gardening mind than mine, otherwise on my scale the result is the occasional irritating distraction in an otherwise pretty picture. So it is a familiar, faithful palette of pinks, lilacs and whites, with predominately silver grey foliage that I look for and like.

Since one way and another the plants arrive at different times, and the summer planting overlaps with late flowering Spring bulbs, there is competition for space in the already crowded containers. So regardless of ultimate height, preferences for sun or shade and better or less good associations, I put the new arrivals where I can. And surprisingly it often works. I do, however, buy with regard to some well tried planting ideas, so three of this, five of that; odd numbers being best I am told. But when it comes to the planting they are scattered more or less randomly with complete disregard to any planting scheme or plan.

I have yet to master the difficulties of relinquishing the ‘add to basket function’, either on-line or at the local garden centre, when shopping for a very small space from an apparently infinite choice. Although the same space could of course be differently arranged – more formal, fewer flowers, more furniture, fewer flowers or just fewer flowers.

Summer Visitors

Now Spring has been supplanted by early Summer and a few days ago my beautiful rambling rose (which tolerates its cramped quarters surprisingly well) was looking luscious and abundant and I was full of anticipation. Having decided that the relatively few greenfly could be a reward for the hover flies that were beginning to make the ascent, I was looking forward to the opening buds and another generous display. It was the wrong call. The green fly spread like wildfire, and reduced the rambler and its neighbouring china rose to a disease ridden tracery. Too late I sprayed all the roses with dilute washing-up liquid, but this was initially a particularly futile attempt at taking control and restoring order, since the use of a spray bottle at altitude was immediately thwarted by the prevailing wind.

However, persistence and dedication have paid off and the green-fly have given way, so hopefully the roses will now recover. As in other years the aphids seem to make a bee-line for the tempting bud tips nearest the walls of the building, presumably for warmth, but also easier to reach when spraying through an open window. So if they are determined to come I will be waiting next year, and get into my stride rather earlier. But now the black fly have found their way to the fruiting cherry, well, no fruit yet, but the chances will be reduced if they too don’t respond to my regime.

Meanwhile olive trees, that I sometimes read need to be taken indoors, lemon verbena, lavenders, and thalbuglia all seem at home, and are coming into growth, unlike the Nandina Domestica which is still struggling. The various clematises are spreading their wings and there are some new arrivals too. But I know from experience that this is the season when more than any other, I guiltily neglect other things, and resent being pulled away from my roof top garden and the nurturing it needs, and I feel drawn to give. I also know from experience that very soon the moment will come when I can let go, enjoy the wayward habits of my much loved patch, with the evening watering then a pleasure filled ritual; a time for musing more and minding less.

In the meantime there is work to be done and plants to dispose of.

Timing is Everything

Dead, dying or dormant? It can be difficult to know when to accept reality and the painful truth that a plant or plants are no longer, never have been or never will be a joy. I was expecting to discard a clematisBroughton Star’ that was failing to cover the obelisk, but heavy rain and freezing wind stopped me from venturing out, and when I did it had burst into life and is now in full swing. My wisteria is only a meagre six inches tall so patience will be needed but it looks healthy and may keep going, but a ‘For Your Eyes Only’ rose, which never rewarded the effort to source it, has gone. The rose arrived at the height of the flood that caused havoc late last summer. It then ironically struggled from lack of water as emergency measures meant it was flung into a far away corner of the balcony, and was crowded out by other horticultural refugees from the storm, and never fully recovered from the early neglect. By then it had anyway lost its charms.

Meanwhile my efforts at blueberry growing have been put to shame. After a Bank Holiday lunch I was shown three proud, pot-happy, productive, glossy-leaved blueberry plants, enjoying their sunny spot and ericaceous compost, under the watchful eye of their owner. They will be ready for picking later in the year and are almost as enviable as the immature, but flourishing, wisteria nearby, with its promise of an early summer coating of pendulous violet flowers. I have managed to provide the ericaceous compost but I’ve skimped on the rest and have never had a harvest – although one or two berries have been enjoyed by visiting birds.

Amongst which continue to be the noisy and distracting parakeets – they never land on the balcony but disturb the small birds that otherwise might. However, I now know that the peregrine falcons nesting high up on a nearby hospital tower are partial to parakeets (sadly kingfishers too) and their feathers have been found in the falcons’ nests. It’s not always easy to know who to support, since there are various potential unintended consequences, but if the peregrines are looking to move on, there is a high rise nesting-site above my head.

Back down to earth I will soon need the assistance of a small agile visitor as the ash tree opposite has spread its seed, some of which is now coming into life in rather inaccessible corners, so before any really get hold they need to go. I also dropped a bag of bird-food, sun-flower seeds as it happens, and am hoping that not too many gain a foothold.

Meanwhile down at the allotment crops are now planted and the flower strip too. The plentiful fern-like mare’s tails are temporarily in check and any sunflowers would be welcome.

Horticultural Hazards

Beyond the obvious – cuts, bruises, back strain, rose-thorns, trips (steps my personal undoing) and falls (ladders being an obvious risk) as well as eye injuries, power tool problems and a long list of allergies, there are risks of a very different kind.

I am a snob, and although I know this about myself it doesn’t stop the struggle to relinquish this undoubted, and often completely unreasonable part of myself from getting in the way of accepting ideas that are new and different but which don’t easily fit with my pre-conceived preferences.

But over the winter I have been buying pot-movers. I was converted as soon as I had bought the first (very carefully chosen) one and put it to use. My prejudices were largely to do with a reluctance to accept that they might help, since I have had an inflated idea of my capacity for managing my small space, including lifting and moving pots when needed. What I hadn’t reckoned with was the relative ease with which I can now now move the large pots (with not much more than finger tip encouragement) in order to reach hidden corners or make space for guests, still required to squash up amidst the greenery but somewhat better accommodated. The bonus of having perfect drainage provided by the mobile pot feet is not to be underestimated either. I do however, continue to camouflage the ‘offending’ wheels whenever possible.

I’ve also become converted to gravel and grit, covering several of the pots with a decorative layer – good for preventing evaporation, more attractive than mud in winter conditions and hopefully will deter invading oxalis too, a pretty, but unduely prevalent, pot-loving weed. However, if I continue in this vein there is a danger that I will convert the whole roof garden into a horizontal pebble-dashed landscape.

Hi(gh) Ho

If the challenges of managing my roof space can be pre-occupying, and occasionally daunting, since the question of ‘weight bearing capacity’ is never far away, the Bosco Verticale takes things to another level in every way. These beautiful tree planted, shrub filled tower blocks, in the centre of Milan, are wondrous creations combining beauty, ingenuity and optimism. The hope is that buildings along these lines can go some way to offset the effects of global warming in urban settings.

And the silver lining for a keen climber with a horticultural bent, could be the option one day to apply for a job as a gardener on these magnificent edifices – a wonderful career move for anyone fluent in Italian.

More immediately there is a chance that a long planned journey, in a few days time, which fortunately involves changing trains in Milan, means I may have an opportunity to glimpse these amazing towers. If the train is on time and my companions not too anxious, a  google map check suggests that there might even be the possibility of a quick dash to see Bosco Verticale for myself – such stuff as dreams, architectural ambition and engineering skill are made of.

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  1. Hope you get to see Bosco Verticale – though I would be frightened of my balcony collapsing if I lived up there!! Bon Voyage! You lucky thing.
    Fritillaries have had a bad year, along with bluebells – with last winter – so don’t worry – buy some seed and plant again and collect the seed heads next year – and scatter them! Plus don’t forget lily beetles like them as well!

  2. I too hope you got to see Bosco Verticale. However if not, next time you visit Yorkshire you should take a look at the new recycling plant in Leeds.
    I’ve no idea how to insert a link so you will have to resort to google.

    • Encouraged I will definitely plant more fritillaries this Autumn and try and visit as many of the emerging high rise gardens as possible too, as well as re-cycling plants – the trip to Bosco Verticale was a step too far but another trip is planned next year so I will keep you posted!

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, 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 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 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 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.