Saturday, 28 November 2015

the hanging basket

Some years ago, I lived in a shared house with a tiny kitchen where I didn't want to give over any counter space to an electric kettle. So I bought stove-top kettles, then going through a spatter of fashionability following the appearance of the Alessi Whistling Bird Kettle in films like Shopping, cheap but appealing items bought from our local department store Boswells ("everything for students and everyone else"), replaced with cheerful regularity each time one sprung a leak or warped so hard in the gas flame it couldn't balance on the stove any more, or boiled dry fatally while I was busy finishing another page or staring at birds in the garden. One of my housemates, frustrated by this parade of inadequate consumer items, brought home, with a flourish, a decent kettle. Le bloody Creuset, in fact:

hanging basket

Practical, robust, chunky and functional, in a sort of old-worldy way, it was almost the anti-Alessi. The sort of kettle your mum would tut at the price of but secretly approve of.

I hated it. I used it, but I hated it. The thick metal was slow to heat, the whistle was carefully set to be pleasant rather than piercing, and it was heavy, heavy with its bottom weighted water and that high handle that always meant I was overstretching my arm.

The day I came home from the shops to find it glowing red, the whistle melted, and the inside bone dry, and hoiked it off the hob and dropped it from a badly-burned hand onto the floor, chipping the overheated enamel, was the day I realised stove-top kettles were over, for me; and indeed though the kettle was still usable (being shockingly robust) and used by my housemates (who preferred it) I brought in a cheap plastic kettle that turned itself off to save us all from my absent-mindedness.

The kettle, as high-quality consumer goods tend to, continued to pursue us, after its original purchaser had emigrated, through the tiny shed-like starter home, after we'd moved into a property and it was then, when I first had to take a drill to my walls that I realised that with a little careful clamping, one might be able to drill drainage holes in a fancy le Creuset kettle.

It's not the best planter - the narrow top gets no rain, so the plants tend to be thin and unsubstantial, like steam from a kettle. But that works; and I always have a hanging basket to hang on that bracket which inevitably you find, next to your door, when you move in, waiting for whatever the next residents think should greet you, morning and night, family and visitor, next to the door, when you come home.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

half an hour before dusk

We've hit that time of year. Late afternoon and you realise it's half an hour before full darkness and if you intended to do anything in the garden it's now or not, and given that there's going to be a hard frost that night (the soft one having taken out the top foliage of the dahlia and the begonia the night before) then it's now, or no more (abutilon) (agapanthus) (nectarine) etc.

I decided that the small stone fruit trees were too heavy for the greenhouse this year. They've gone into the shed (it's got a perspex roof). The Fuchsia were all looking quite rough, not having liked the previous night's touch of frost at all; into the greenhouse with them, to nestle up against the chillies (there are too many to come inside).

One last desperate check round for anything forgotten; a quick check of labels on the fancy plants. A dither over the South African Heathers and the Tree Fern (out for now - may come in). The sky darkening fast, the garden still a chaos of weeds and autumn leaves and hands that need decontaminating before shaping the bread (on its one hour rest).

My poor grape vine. Huge bunches of nearly ripened grapes and yellow, tattered leaves. I fear it will all go into the compost this year.

Next up: winter container activity, including potting on the apple tree.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

first frost and the strangest autumn colour

First frost is forecast. The temperature is plunging. The condensation is crawling up the windows and the leaves from the trees are scattered across the patio. All, that is, except for Dwarf Peach Crimson Bonfire, which despite the chilling of the days, is still clinging to the late green leaves which have been the signature of this autumn.

The season has been so warm that leaves have been clinging to their chlorophyll, ending up chequered and harlequinned, autumn colour striped and patched on still-photosynthesising leaves.

leaves against the river smoke bush 1
smoke bush 2 blueberry leaf

The peach and the nectarine and the olive and the fig must be manoevered (sack truck to the rescue) into sheltered spaces for winter coddling. Abutilons x 2 and Fuchsias x ?8 must go into the greenhouse, along with the Tweedia and the Agapanthus (which this year sulked and gave me a single sullen flower).

This is what must happen, preferably before the first frost, but almost certainly after it, in a tearing hurry, sparked by the sudden collapse of the final begonia.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

coming indoors

The chillies have started to suffer end of stem rot. The shoots and tips suddenly wither as the plant auto-amputates the cold-shocked stem, which then sprouts a fur of soft grey mould. The effect is very strange, like a special effect abruptly applied, like a zombie plant limb. Sometimes an entire flower goes in full bloom, the little lanterns suddenly browned and sprouting the instamould seemingly in moments.

So I've brought two in, the largest and most prolific of the Vampire/Nosferatu (I planted both black varieties, and am honestly not sure which is which) and one of the Kashmiri chillies planted from a bag of delicious dried chillies sourced from The Eden Project. We're growing them for culinary reasons, but I suspect they will not be as nice, grown in my back garden (verandah now). They're both still in their outdoor pots while they acclimatise (the Kashmiri sharing its pot with a scented geranium, which is loving the sudden warmth!) but once I'm sure the warm shock isn't going to kill them I'll move them to their winter homes. Vampire had a zombie twig (now removed) so that's the more vulnerable of the two plants, I'd say. There are another five or six chilli plants out in the greenhouse - but they can't all come in. Can they?

I've closed down all of the begonias and dahlias too, and tucked them into their dry, spent compost for the winter, bar the tree Begonia which is still (improbably) flowering in the corner of the Patio. It'll need to be taken into its winter home this weekend though, I think. It's getting cooler and way wetter. I'm almost nervous about how big the corm will be, but I can always stow it in a washing up bowl or something if none of the pots are big enough.The ginger lily went in at the same time. It was a bad summer for tender bulbs; not a single tiger lily flowered. Typically this was the year I'd decided to send Tiger lilies to all my sisters... and it just wasn't the weather for them.

I yanked up all the Zinnias bar one and into the compost they went. Some year I'll get them out into the garden.

Then to the grapes. I picked a bowlful (they have oh-so-nearly ripened) but they were too acidic for snacking, and I ended up putting them in the compost. On the vine; big black bunches of fat grapes, tattered yellow autumn leaves. I probably have enough for wine again, but I'm barely drinking at the moment and lack enthusiasm. Maybe I can find someone else who wants the grapes.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

dyed lillies and the evolution of a bouquet

My nephew and niece bought me flowers. Can you guess which bunch is from which? You'd be right! This photo doesn't quite do the screaming luridity of the blooms justice. When I was carrying them back to the office, people across the street were staring. I'm quite pleased by the concept; take a slightly morbid flower (the funereal white lily) and render it instantly child-friendly by dint of dipping it in some dye. The dye flushes the petals (and to a lesser extent the leaves) and hey-presto, the Toys-Я-Us bouquet is born.

there's a colour found in nature

They went to the kitchen table, where the morning sun would catch them and light them up like a World of Barbie torch. This is a low cat traffic area (lilies are toxic to all pets) but she's been known to hop up onto the table, so I carefully trimmed off the stamens as each flower opened to avoid her getting sprinkled with pollen and cleaning it off into her stomach. She's not a foliage nibbler, thankfully.

domestic scene

After a week or so, the flowers stopped opening and the leaves started dropping. Not bad going for a bouquet that's had so much done to it. The final phase of all my bouquets is to go outside, so I can enjoy the last shreds of brightness from the flowers without having to smell their rotting stems. The slugs and snails will eat their way through all this, lining their stomachs with pink and blue dye.

the final hurrah

If the wind doesn't take it first.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

the fading of the light

Autumn is right here now, but the flowers are still blooming. Some, like the campanula (top right) are having a second flush, while others (like the fuchsia) had a late start. Most (like the pansy and the fire heath (top left)) are showing wear. The seasons are beginning to grind them down. They are slowing; more settling, less growing.

fire heath campanula lonerica tomato! fuchsia shredded pansy
Then there's the fruit. Everything with berries is doing well this year, and my two dimensional lonerica (I'm growing it up a fence and snipping off everything that sticks out) is no exception. The raspberries are also doing well, though they've begun to taste a bit of rain and the damp, and of maybe getting a bit sick after eating them.

I grew the orange pears (it's a fancy heritage cherry tomato variety) in the flower beds after I ran out of space in the greenhouse. I always overshoot on my tomato seedlings and end up filing a few among the roses and geraniums. These did badly - only turning orange as they went rotten or were nibbled by slugs - but it's hard to know if I should blame the bad weather. Nobody's tomatoes did well this year.

With the exception of a mysterious yellow heritage tomato. My sister in law gave me a few plants and they blasted through the manky summer and threw out a bumper crop. They're not the very best flavour but they're solid gold reliable, and the best chance I've seen so far of a quality border tomato. I've saved some seeds and we'll see how it goes.

Friday, 6 November 2015

building that biome

I've had a badly upset stomach this week. It coincided with the bread first being a bit squishy, and then getting mould. It seems that after ten months of regular baking, we have now created a steady, predictable environment, where those bacteria that thrive on bread can grow, expand and proliferate. And so we have rope, bane of the baker; and mould, monster of the store cupboard. A bacterial biome that conspires to take our food and use it before we can.

I visited my old place at the weekend. I planted a lot when I got there, mostly because the garden had no good borders. So I put in a front hedge, a box hedge, a fuchsia hedge, a native hedge, a rosa rugosa hedge and over the bit where we sometimes got people vaulting over and scampering through the property - a thorn hedge with firethorn and Berberis for berries and colour. A few took quickly, but the Fuchsia sulked for years. It's only recently that it's started to screen the ugly concrete wall it was planted to hide, and once again I'm inclined to blame the biome. All this planting preceded the easy availability of rootgrow, so everything had to build its own relationships with whatever it could find in the way of mycorrhizal helpers. The fuchsia, planted right next to a recently built concrete wall, had the hardest job on its hands, followed by the Rugosa, planted in a narrow trench cut through a field of very vigorous grass. Once the trees (I also put a cherry out back and a magnolia front) got big enough to start spreading the joy, then everything woody benefited. Plains gave way to shrubland. The biome changed.

Looking down at the patio today, Tim commented that we should clean it next spring. Our neighbours have a large steam cleaner that does do a super job and makes everything look sparkly fresh. But the patio too is a biome - rock pavement - and has its microscopic inhabitants. Algae, lichens, insects, moss; the columns of gnats that swirl above it, tempting in bats and dragonflies; the colonies of worms and ants that live beneath; the woodlice and, yes, even the slugs and snails. All of its invaders and inhabitants.

Gardeners build biomes and break them, shift them and change them. Our humaniform biomes sometimes fold out perfectly; other times, they seem permanently askew, and hard to fix. In my garden, for example, the slugs and snails are too plentiful, and there's an overplus of ants. Would steaming the patio help? Or would it just drive the survivors all the harder onto my young plants?

Maybe we'll find out this spring.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

the fog comes down

November is here, and it is so warm that almost nothing has stopped flowering. A few years ago, I would photograph November flowers; tiny frail things, defiant against the cold. I was so delighted whenever I found one!

november flowers

This year, I am walking past gardens where the ruins of dahlias and the wreckage of chrysanthemums are everywhere, nodding richly in the mild November breeze. The unfalling leaves are checkered with chlorophyll unwilling to leave while there is still a breath of warmth in the air; a last sweet shock of Indian summer.

In my garden, all the HHAs are still wildly blooming, even proper tropics like the lantana. The golden raspberries are still a-fruiting, I have chillies up against the wall and even the grapes look like they might make a bucket of wine...

...and then the fog comes down like a curtain and the moist cool starts on all those plants, blotching them with brown and rot and the clammy hands of autumn close around the fruits and the flowers and the leaves begin to fall, scattering paths, pavements, rivers, puddles with elegant patterns in sumptuous autumnal Liberty of London complex colours.

The rain is falling, finally, washing the petals from the flowers, shrinking the roses, rotting the fruit and raising the water table slowly and inexorably. Time to get the pots up on pot feet or into the shed or out of the wind.

But it's so hard when the Begonias and the Germaniums and even the Zinnias are still flowering. I keep wanting to pretend it's still summer.