Thursday, 31 October 2013

Box (31 OCT 2013)

The front wall bordering my property had one capping stone missing. Though the rendered coating looked intact, some areas on the inner side could be picked off by hand, loosened by retained moisture. In an attempt to repair the wall, I dislodged and cracked some bricks which provided some entertainment for the people walking by who probably didn’t even know who lived in my house before.

The most difficult part was deciding where to draw the line between adequate and in need of renovation. At one point I considered knocking down the whole wall and laying bricks from scratch, it would have been easier. A builder driving by stopped and quoted £800. I was tempted, but declined - I had begun and would finish, somehow.

It didn’t take long for the conquering spirit to wane - I wished I had never started, vowing to think twice in future. I was staring at the wall hopelessly when a passing stranger asked if I was trying to take the wall down. I explained that when I tried to remove the damaged parts of the wall, the bricks underneath broke off too. He gave me a tip on how to handle the bolster correctly. Thanks to him - I finally removed the damaged bricks in less than ten minutes.

I hardly spoke to my neighbours “before the wall”. Everyone is occupied with their own business in London and it’s normal for neighbours to be unfamiliar, even if I stop for a chat I never know what to say. However, exposing myself to the world, sweating as I toiled in my worn-out tracksuit and slippers, remarkably, drew people to me and I became a local celebrity, on my half of the street at least.

I learnt to mix mortar, starting with a prepared mixture, then graduated to mixing cement and sand. A wooden spoon and a bucket were the only tools required - just like mixing cake batter. The wall was repaired as intended, though it will probably need to be redone by a professional in a year or two. One of my neighbours informed me that I was in good company with Winston Churchill. I checked the internet curiously and indeed found pictures of him bricklaying while smoking a cigar. I can understand how it could become addictive, I had grit in my hair and my hands were ruined, yet it felt so good - a world apart from my office job.


During this time I experienced an epiphany. Without analysing my future prospects, I found myself checking out the internal job postings at work and applying for a position which was a bit more creative and a bit less corporate than the current one. I interviewed for it (thought it best not to mention the wall) and start tomorrow ! 

Having invested so much time and care on the wall, I imagined the final touch would be a traditional box hedge. A friend warned that they are more trouble than they’re worth as their roots penetrate deeply and can destroy the foundations of the wall. Literally the weekend after, I went to the supermarket to buy groceries and there was a trolley at the entrance advertising buy-one-get-one–free box plants for sale. What was the likelihood of that? Of course, I bought six.

The boxes looked like they needed repotting. The soil fell away in clumps, as if the roots had been folded over and packed in. They seemed fibrous and it was hard to imagine that they could cause damage but I chose to stay on the cautious side keeping the plants in pots.

For now, the boxes are lined up with their soil covered with pieces of broken render. I’m hoping that as the months go by they will merge together into a sort of hedge. (It’s possible to encourage more open-growth by hanging fishing weights from the outer branches.)  Anyway, they distract one’s eye from the wall behind them.

Today I'm linking to Patient Gardener's End of Month View :

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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Heuchera (16 OCT 2013)

I’ve pulled out sycamore seedlings at this time of year ever since I can remember. Even before I was a gardener, it wasn’t my favourite chore. They get everywhere, in pots, in flowerbeds and under the straw surrounding my precious strawberry plants, propelled there by their incredibly effective wings. I admit reluctantly that it’s an example of evolution at its best.

I was surprised earlier this year when I saw a pot on sale containing a little sycamore seedling. “Those darn things”, I thought.

I peered inside to see what was supposed to be growing in the pot but there was nothing else. The pot was labelled Heuchera. Wasn’t that the plant that keen gardeners rave about ? … highly rated for its foliage ?

My first reaction was to abandon it on the shelf but curiosity got the better of me – luckily I trusted the judgement of those gardeners more than my own.

Within four months I had begun to see its attraction.

It even softened my annoyance with the sycamores, because when I look at them now ...

...  they remind me of heuchera, though they are not related.

I wasn’t aware that it was actually in the same family when I tucked the heuchera next to my washing-line pole between two bergenias. The tall flower stalks which arise from these groundcover plants are the only clue. Just like bergenias, heuchera doesn’t need special attention, I haven’t watered or fed them but maybe they benefit from the slightly acidic mulch shed by the camellia canopy above.

All together they make a fine foliage display, the leaves of each plant telling a story of the compromises made between the needs to photosynthesise, sunscreen, transfer heat, hydrate and deter herbivores in their native habitats.

During late summer to autumn there is the added bonus of the "insignificant" flowers which to me look like the cascade from fireworks in miniature.

Today I'm linking up to Foliage Follow-Up at Pam's Digging blog on the 16th of the month.

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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Anemones (17 SEP 2013)

I have the impression that people abroad think all Brits can recite Shakespearean plays. I’m afraid to say that this isn’t true. Have you ever tried to read “The Taming of the Shrew” ?

At least I can relate to :
Katherine : If I be waspish, best beware my sting”

It’s very complex, consisting of a plot within a plot and people disguising themselves as other people for no apparent reason. From what I can gather after reading the students’ notes, the morals of the story are : (1) a beautiful wife is not necessarily obedient, (2) a stroppy wife can be worn down eventually by an overly-attentive husband and (3) a good father makes sure that his older daughter is married off before the younger one.

This is my simplified interpretation of the same title …

A couple of years ago, I decided that I couldn’t tolerate the anemones creeping into the patio. The sights of them proliferating in neglected gardens made them seem rather common and the foliage appeared coarse, though admittedly it’s mostly the pink variety that I’ve seen growing wild.

I removed the patio stones and eradicated as much of the invasive rootstock as possible, just leaving a tiny bit in case I changed my mind. The empty space was filled with foxgloves and wallflowers and all was good.

This year the anemones are back, though restrained compared to before, and I’m so grateful. I see them in a different light this time around : the buds pointing out at all angles, the dense, milky white sepals which last for weeks, the spheres of inflorescence at the centre which turn into delicate cotton wool balls speckled with seeds.

Now that I’ve learnt how to tame them, I can’t imagine my garden without anemones - the way they brighten up a dark corner and bob about in the wind.

While I was researching this member of the ranunculus family, I found others which don’t seem to have much in common except that they too have coloured, sepals rather than petals, they produce an acrid substance called ranunculin and they thrive in my woodland garden :

Anemones hupehensis (photographed in this post)
Anemones blanda
Creeping Buttercups
Beautiful delphiniums are also in the same family, but so far they have eluded me. I’ve never seen a delphinium seed germinate obediently and so my vision of the woodland garden filled with their blues and purples is yet to be realised. Discovering that they could potentially be as spirited as their relatives has spurred me on to try harder, even if it means trying to germinate them indoors over winter. Who knows? .. by next year I could be pulling those out too even though I love them.

Today I'm linking up to Dozen for Diana :

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Monday, 2 September 2013

Oregano (02 SEP 2013)

A couple of years ago my neighbours were going to throw away an oregano plant; it found refuge in my garden. I have a feeling it’s one of those herbs that you are supposed to grow fresh from new seed every spring. The yellow tinge on the leaves suggests it’s stressed in some way, maybe that’s why it flowers like a trooper.

It’s not the best looking plant, the faint pink flowers are so tiny that it’s difficult to distinguish their shape and you can only get a whiff of their scent if you stick your nose right in.

However on hot days, something magical happens.  
The tiny flowers fill the air with the spicy aroma of pizza.

All the bees in the garden decide that this is the place to be, turning an inconspicuous bush into a vibrating, humming extravaganza.

Meanwhile in the garage, there was another hive of activity. I wouldn’t have noticed usually, but I was in and out trying to fix the front garden wall. Fearing the worst, I called in the council. It took two attempts to remove the wasps nest, costing a total of £60 and two half-days off work. The man said it was a big one; I directed him to check out the internet. On the first attempt he sprayed it with insecticide, but wasps were still returning to it three days later.

Finally, the nest was removed; it disintegrated into weightless flakes, not leaving a trace on the rafters from which it had hung. The whole process made me feel rather uncomfortable because the wasps weren’t doing any harm; they showed no interest in stinging me at all.

I checked the internet again, to confirm that I’d done the right thing. Apparently, a particularly aggressive queen can pass her temperament to all her offspring. If you have an allergy to wasps, it’s possible to be killed by just one sting. If you don’t have an allergy, multiple stings can be fatal, and one wasp can attack several times. I couldn’t find the probability of these casualties though. Wasps can also chew through building materials.

It was difficult to equate what I was reading to what I saw with my own eyes and my gut instinct. As wasps are territorial, they wont build a nest in the vicinity of another, even a crushed paper bag can be used as a decoy. I’m hoping that an aggressive queen doesn’t return next year and take revenge by building a nest in my loft instead, maybe I reacted too quickly.

Even though they are not as effective as bees, which can trap pollen in their hairs, wasps do pollinate and feed on pests. However, these beneficial aspects were outweighed by my need to protect my own territory. The experience made me question my ethics : organic in the back-garden, not so much in the garage. Anyway, at least one wasp got to feast on the oregano.

Inspired by Linnie’s cult movie Crocosmia for Lunch, I tried to film the goings-on in the oregano bush but it was quite difficult to keep in focus. So here are sections of film reel instead of a piece entitled :
“Oregano – it’s not just for pizza” 

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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Wallflowers (22 AUG 2013)

Anyone paying close attention to this blog may remember that I’ve already written about wallflowers a few times this year, starting from winter when their long-awaited buds emerged at the same time as the hellebores. Their velvety red petals complemented the tulips and then the poppies through spring, and in summer their orangey, yellow hues competed with the marigolds.

I even experimented with them, inserting them in a wall to check if they had been named correctly, which failed unfortunately. However, I was more successful when I tested their robustness by using them to plug holes that the fox had dug out in a dry bed. I didn’t have to water them, but as the months progressed, I was less inclined to even if they had needed it.

I can’t remember exactly the point when I maxed out on wallflowers. I used to think that I would never throw a healthy plant away as every flower is precious and there are always bare patches in the garden that need filling, but eventually the big sprawling mess had to go. The final straw was when they threatened to sow seeds over the patio cracks to spawn another yearful.

Thinking that I had aborted the next generation, I took time to smell the roses and other non-wallflowers. Then the other day I was inspecting my propogation pot where I had sprinkled magnolia, delphinium and romano pepper seeds with the hope that at least one plant would germinate out of the three, when I recognised wallflower seedlings which seemed to have hibernated since the year before. More annoyingly, each leaf was in perfect condition whereas the leaves of my single remaining broccoli seedling were covered in tiny holes.

I knew that wallflowers and broccoli were both in the brassica family. This summer I learned that nasturtiums are in that family too after identifying caterpillars which were shredding my flower basket display.
I didn’t mind the sacrifice in exchange for being delighted by the sight of cabbage white butterflies feeding on wildflowers and fluttering about in pairs.  

The thought did cross my mind to suggest to the caterpillars that my wallflower seedlings could be a potential food source. I was toying with the idea when I found a stray seedling which had grown into the wall of my house, by my seat on the back doorstep, and noticed for the first time that its flowers were like little butterflies in flight ...

Today I'm linking up to the Grow Write Guild : This Plant is Driving me Nuts!

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Thursday, 1 August 2013

Goldenrod (01 AUG 2013)

This golden rose is called Absolutely Fabulous – and is to me. However, the pollinators don’t seem so fussed with it …
 whereas this plant is literally a-buzz.
At first, I thought it was a mutant wild aster without petals, which wasn’t too far wrong, as it is actually Goldenrod which is in the same family. Apparently, British gardeners originally introduced it as an ornamental, even though it’s an American native often growing at roadsides. It is known to be invasive there, but is behaving itself in this flower-bed near London.

There is a story attached to this plant which, as an engineer and gardener, I found fascinating. Following the First World War, three friends Ford, Firestone and Edison had a shared interest in manufacturing cars. They discussed the options for producing tyres without relying on raw materials from abroad. Edison tested 15000 plants and found 1240 which yielded rubber - goldenrod produced the best quality. Ford presented Edison with a Model T with tyres made from goldenrod rubber, however it turned out not to be commercially viable in the end.
Until this year I had hardly seen butterflies, but maybe summer’s late start allowed the caterpillars to fatten up for a bit longer and the current heatwave caused all the chrysalises to crack open at once. They’re everywhere, especially flitting about amongst the goldenrod, their wings substituting for fancy petals. Of course, they disappear by the time I get my camera out – except for one.

The Gatekeeper butterfly can be distinguished from the similar Meadow Brown by the two white spots in the “eye” of its wing, which is supposed to distract predators away from its vulnerable body. The latter only has one spot. The female’s upper wing is bright orange apart from the eye and brown edging; the male’s is crossed with a dark band of scent glands. They have relatively short proboscises which may explain why they are partial to the small florets of goldenrod.

I was honoured to spend some time with this little creature. It convinced me to plant a tuber of goldenrod in a dry patch in my own garden which wouldn't have been my first choice before.


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Sunday, 21 July 2013

Daffodils (21 JUL 2013)

I never thought that I would use the words “lovely” and “daffodils” in the same sentence …

This spring I discovered white, double-headed daffodils.

I didn’t intend to plant them in the sunshine as I’d bought the bulbs in the November sale planning to brighten up a dark corner in my brother’s garden. A few were left over so I planted them in an empty patch in my own.
When I planted them in bleak mid-winter, I didn’t even imagine how heavenly they would look when the sun shone through them. 
And that dark corner ? Can you see them ? You have to walk round the path to the shed in my brother’s garden, then look across past the bush with yellow flowers and under the frame of our childhood swing.

And here they were growing amongst the weeds.
It seemed weedy then, but a few months later brambles, buttercups and other unidentifiables had taken over. In the foreground are two roses and some smothered strawberries which still endure since I planted them decades ago, when my Mum gave me a small patch hidden from view to experiment with.


In the background is the area which she had intended to be a vegetable patch. I planted the daffodils there in rememberance, to get myself started on what seemed like an impossible task (though I know that tackling a patch like this would be a piece of cake to many of the garden bloggers out there …)

When the daffodils flowered, they encouraged me to take the trouble to tidy up the plot so that they would be in a nice setting. When the plot was neater, it was more pleasant to spend time in there. The more time I spent at the bottom of the garden, (instead of sitting on the doorstep daydreaming about flowers that look like angels), the less daunting it seemed to dig out the first forkful of weeds. Then once I started, I couldn’t stop …  all thanks to a packet of daffodil bulbs.
I wasn’t sure what vegetables I was going to plant to make my Mum’s vision a reality – I suspected it was rather late to be planting seeds, but I tried not to think about this too much as that’s where I’ve failed before, stopped in my tracks by analysis paralysis.

At the same time, I realised that I needed to fill the plot pretty quickly or the weeds would take over again. Then miraculously it all started coming together almost by itself …  I found strawberry plants being sold off at a fraction of the price so I bought 18 plants for £1.50 and a bag of straw.

The only fly in the ointment is that after planting the strawberries, I noticed the small print “Elsanta”. This infamous strawberry is always mentioned whenever people talk about the tasteless strawberries which are available in the shops. I’m hoping that growing them on soil which has only serviced weeds for decades might give them a bit of extra flavour.
During the weeding process, I dug out most of the brambles, but left one monster plant which we used to pick blackberries from for apple pies. It had never occurred to me before to train it up and over the swing frame, even though it was growing right next to it.
On the other hand, I also discovered a mini blueberry bush which I had counted as lost years ago. It doesn’t appear to have grown much since I last saw it, but at least it’s alive and in this new aura of hope and conquering all obstacles who knows what might happen.

Then to round it all off, the raspberries started fruiting. It brought back memories of my Mum calling from the garden to fetch a bowl. However, we hardly ever ate fresh raspberries. We used to collect them in the freezer till we had enough to make a dessert. When my mother died, one of the difficult jobs I had to do was clear out the freezer because it contained left-overs carefully stashed away that no-one else could eat except my Mum. In the bottom drawer, I found several packets of raspberries that I had picked once. As I reluctantly threw them away, I vowed that I would never freeze a home-grown berry again.

And so it came to be, not exactly the vegetable patch that my Mum had wished for but a Berry Garden for picking & eating and enjoying life now.
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