Friday, 29 January 2016

other people's gardens: the mimosa house

Front gardens in winter are often a bit bleak. But not this one:

yellow house

The glorious golden mimosa house is deep in the urban heat island, in a backstreet broad enough to get the sun, yet narrow enough to be sheltered from the wind. The yellow mimosa is picked up by a yellow door and gate, the oily sheen on black bricks contrasts deliciously with the fluffy flowers and delicate leaves. It's a December delight, and must cheer the residents every time they come home - or leave the house.

I can't see pictures I'm taking any more - the camera's screen has gone - so currently I'm pointing and hoping. This one came out OK. But time for another camera, probably.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

winter lights and purple pot

The early blossom is starring the black branches. Walking home in the dark, I glance up and there are white flowers. In my back garden, two days of frost failed to dim the enthusiasms of my tiny Japanese cherry tree or the winter jasmine. The winter is warm. The sap is rising.

wild plum blossom wild plum blossom

The apple tree was already flushing red along its branches. A precious few cooler days and a spare hour on a Saturday and it was time for the great repotting.


For the first time ever, it looks like the tree is not too big for its pot. Glossy coated fibreglass, it's almost double the volume of the previous pot. Here's hoping it's enough to stave off the problems of last year (few leaves, small fruit, and other signs of stress).

Of course it's madness it's growing an apple tree in a pot, but it's my madness, and I like it.

A flying visit to London included a trip to the London Cat Village (a "village themed cat cafe") but also a wander through the winter light festival (London Lumiere). Leicester Square was done up as a giant glowing garden:

garden of light garden of light
electric light bulb tree Lily of the valley table lights
star wars and lumiere lily of the valley and tree

I loved those Lily of the Valley tables. They should be up all year round.

Friday, 22 January 2016

the chilli seed stocktake

Today was Wilbur Scoville's 151st birthday, thanks to google for the heads up. It's also not a bad time to plant your first peppers, if there's a heated propagator for them (there is) and you have some seeds (and oh, I do). The seed audit produced some surprises (two half-used packets of Black Krim tomato seeds, for example) of which the chilli seed heap was the biggest. I have:

  • Nosferatu, a black chilli with purple flowers, harvested from the very successful season they had last year (I still have one plant overwintering in the verandah).
  • Amy Hungarian Wax, a pretty multicolour chilli that ought to be really easy to grow, but somehow I always struggle with this variety
  • Sweet Pepper sweet sunshine; these fell to the great all-purpose compost disaster last year, but I have four (count 'em) seeds to try again with this year
  • Pepper Bullhorn Mixed; this is a sweetie rather than a chilli, but grows smaller or prolific fruit than a regular sweet pepper. I didn't have enough sun for sweet peppers last year, and none of the plants got to fruit before autumn closed in.
  • Pepper Prairie Fire - I got a few fruit from this one last year. They were quite nice!
  • Mysterious envelopes #1 and #2 - almost certainly from a pack of dried chillies we got from the Eden Project, which were very tasty indeed.
  • Chilli Pepper Trinidad Perfume - This packet is so old that the original supplier is no longer selling this variety! 
  • Chilli Pepper Aji Limon - I struggle to get this one to germinate, but it sounds so lovely I keep persisting. 
  • Chilli Bulgarian Carrot - there's one chilli still alive in the greenhouse, sprawling over the overwintering fuchsias and chrysanthemums. I think it's this variety. No fruit or flowers on it, though.
  • Chilli Vampire - the more compact version of Nosferatu, and just as beautiful and prolific. Purple flowers so pretty no wonder they all get germinated. Reasonable heat once the fruit have reddened, and a good crisp green favour while still black.
  • Chilli Ring of Fire - UK grown chillies don't get enough heat or sun, at any rate in my back garden, and so they have less heat. I had this theory that starting with a fiercer breed might up my scovilles, and this one is supposed to be good for chilli flakes, but it looks like I never even opened the packet last year.
  • Chilli Cherry Bomb - this is the one you stuff with feta. It bombed last year in the aforementioned compost disaster.
  • Chilli Pepper Twilight - this is the decorative one that sometimes turns up in florists. Another unopened packet.
  • Chilli Peter Pepper, aka the chilli willy, bright red and shaped exactly like a thingy... 2015 seeds and sadly unopened!
Some of these packets are three years old, so it's time to get them down. I also feel like I have enough to experiment with. Where can I grow chillies so they get enough sun and warmth? The greenhouse's top shelf is OK, but it's cold early in the year and overshadowed later and besides I need that space for everything else.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

zinnias and sunflowers in space!

Some plants are very easy to grow. These plants come in cheerful packets with signs on them saying things like EASY and ideal for children. Sweet Peas, Sunflowers, and my favourite, beautiful Zinnias.

Easy, it says on the packets. But every year I planted Zinnias and they didn't come up, or they sprouted and damped, or they sprouted and wilted, or they got chomped and withered. Easy. Last year, I overplanted; panicked about the watering, then got distracted and forgot them for a month, and then, finally I had my zinnias. All two of them.

red zinnia pink zinnia

As you can see, they're in the shed. My savage slugs shred them otherwise.

In space, you don't need to worry about slugs. This is the beautiful space zinnia, the first ever flower successfully grown in space. You can't see much of the foliage on my Zinnias, but they're weaklings compared to the space zinnia. Look at those lovely petals.


















Gravity matters to plants. Statoliths fall to the bottom of cells in roots and stems, declaring down, asserting up. The route to this zinnia was fraught with mould, guttation and epinasty, but the astronauts made their Zinnia bloom in its red-lit growing pillows.

I usually find sunflowers grow more easily; and back in 2012 an astronaut grew one in a zip-lock bag. This one really missed the gravity, though again, I've grown worse:


















This off-list experiment is recorded as The Diary of a Space Zucchini, which is written from the perspective of one of the other denizens of the zip-lock bag, another classic easy-sprouter, a courgette. It's a strangely moving piece, which acknowledges both the risks and the wonder of sending seeds out into space, and explores how deeply humans attach to other living things, even plants, even in the depths of space.

Friday, 15 January 2016

spread betting their way through winter

A lot of trees this year, especially in towns, where the air hums with stray photons from the omnipresent street-lighting, are this year toting a little frill of still-green leaves, like a monk's tonsure. Most of the leaves are gone, but a few linger, stubbornly green despite the dark days and the cold nights, a green torch lit through winter.

Christmas Lights 1

So far their optimism has been justified. No bitter weeks of frosts have descended to brown and curl their perky greenness. Photosynthesis continues through winter's unchill. The plants stay half-awake, and hope no arctic blasts will come.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

moss garden, mustique garden, and a moment between garden walls

David Bowie is dead, alas. Fortuitously I own a pair of black lightning-bolt earrings, and probably a t-shirt with a black star on it somewhere (if I ever get out of the usual January uniform of workjacket by day/pyjamas by night) so my mourning is sorted, bar the long cold feeling that the world has become a little less extraordinary and beautiful by his departure.

I remembered a track my mind insisted was called Japanese Garden; it is of course Moss Garden, one of the instrumentals from Heroes. Made jointly with Brian Eno, Bowie attempting to evoke the moss temple of Kyoto/destroy everything and Eno taking steps to "change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency".

It's a beautiful garden, constructed of careful synthesised sounds and Bowie's uncertain koto.



While looking for it online, I also discovered that Bowie, in the heady high days of the 90s and his global millionairedom, owned a Spectacular Garden on the Island of Mustique (this slideshow selected both for the good views of the garden rooms, and of Bowie in a sarong). Built around a vast Koi Pond by pot-fuelled Bali garden commandos the garden is lavish, tropical, exotic... and all gone now - ripped out by the next millionaire to come along. Sic transit hortum.

The Berlin Years held gardens of a different nature. Grunewald Forest turns up in tales of the Thin White Duke*, a handsome public woodland overtopped by an artificial mountain made of rubble topped by a vast, ruined Cold War Listening Post. And then there is of course this garden:

Otto Mueller's Lovers Between Garden Walls is a highly respected painting whose fame on the internet returns again and again to the fact that David Bowie once spent ten minutes looking at it around the time that he wrote Heroes. Maybe it was the yellow tree, or the passionate angle of the woman's leg that entranced him so, or the sense of glimpsed emotion, both protected and hemmed in by high bright walls.

* ... in the Grunewald, the deep and dark urban forest that hugs the city’s western fringe, we ate and drank too much and ... at the urinals ... sang Buddy Holly songs together

Friday, 8 January 2016

The January catwalk of new varieties

Hurrah for my list! My working-from home day lunch hour gave me just enough time to:

  • Get all remaining bulbs into the soil
  • Clear away the rotting grapes
So the garden's ground has been broken for 2016. Meanwhile, in my inbox, fantasy gardening continues apace with a giddy parade of new fantastical varieties none of which I must buy until I've done my seed audit. Oooh, but they're tempting....

From the House of Unwin come some fabulous purples - Morning Glory Inkspot might persuade my resident population into a blue shift as currently they are in shades of magenta to pink. Nemesia Framboise, in the exact colours of an Urban Hypercolour vest I owned in the 90s, some startling blue takes on standard varieties - Petunia Aladdin Nautical Mix and Aquilegia Spring Magic Navy and the astonishing, Swiss flag coloured Poppy Victoria Cross.

From T&M comes their upgrade on the Chocolate Cosmos - Cosmos Astrosanguineus "Eclipse" - darker, richer and more chocolatey than ever, a practically pink Marigold _ Marigold Strawberry Blonde, and many astonishing shades of Petunia including the appropriately named Petunia Night Sky and the neon-pop Petunia Cremissimo, plus freaky-deaky delights like Mosquitaway Geraniums and Daffodil Begonias.

Suttons weigh in with frost tender but fabulous Caladium Postman Joyner in shrieking neon green and pink, Cosmos Xanthos, a true yellow Cosmos, and Indigo Rose, The Black Tomato, which sounds like a detective novel worth reading.

But before any gap filling, the seed audit.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

What to do in your garden in January

It's dismal out there. Squishy ground, seeping sky. A sullen streak of light between dawn and dusk during which time you'll actually be sat at your office desk five days out of seven and doing the washing the other two. The odd twenty minutes here and there while you're chasing blown over pots or blown in rubbish is not time to do anything in the garden ... unless you have a list ready.

My list:

Too wet to go out:
  • Get the propagator fired up. I can start with Red Salvia, Rainbow Chillies and Black Krim and just improvise through the seedbox from there.
  • Plant sweet peas. In the shed, where I might also tidy up some pots and seeds.
  • TLC for the brought in plants. Nosferatu Pepper #1 is drooping, but it could recover?
Murky, cold and horrible:
  • Put down any stray bulbs not yet planted. I had been waiting until after a decent cold spell, but that's not going to happen in time this year.
  • Sweep the leaves onto the flower beds. It's a quick job but everything likes it.
  • Cut back the ivy. The sisyphean task.
A fine afternoon:
  • Pot on the apple tree. I had been waiting for a good phase of dormancy, but I think it's not coming.
  • Cut back the hedges and the edges. There is encroachment going on.
  • Prune the vine. 
There are also some write-in tasks I have waiting - pick up some Abutilon cuttings from a friend, e.g. but they can go off the main list.

Friday, 1 January 2016

new year in the garden

It's resolution o'clock. I need to decide what, if anything, I need to resolve for 2016. As I speak, the winter clematis is in bud at the same time as the grapes are finally about ripe (what.). My daffodils are in full bud - not quite out yet, but it won't be long. The passion vine is showing no sign of wither and the spring clematis is sprouting. Last year's marigolds are still in flower. It feels like October has run straight into March without a pause for frost (there was one night of light frost and another which might have a had a breath, it was hard to tell) or freeze. I'm still turfing slugs out of the verandah. Nothing is sleeping, everything is sprouting.

This is a problem, because like a typical English gardener* I retreated to my sofablankets about a month ago. There will be weeding to do, among other things (hopefully not too many of them involving things rotting in their pots).  So I still have that stop-point (even if the garden doesn't) and I still needs to re-start myself, which is of course what the resolutions are for; the rocket up the backside of 2016.

Let's light a fuse:

  1. Resolve the conflict between baking and gardening
    Baking is great. Home made bread is the best. But during the rests I can't get my hands dirty gardening. So when do I garden? A plan is needed.  
  2. Pay myself a gardening "wage"
    An hourly rate is one of the best motivators I know, and it turns  money you're spending on the garden into money you've earned to spend in the garden. Let's see how it goes. 
  3. Concentrate properly on colour
    I want a theme for the year. It's going to be colour. Probably bright but we'll see how it goes, and what colours we end up enjoying.
  4. Use up seeds rather than buy any new
    I have too many seeds, but there are always good seeds. Beautiful seeds. But I must resist! All those seeds sadly awaiting their moment must have it this year.
  5. Cut back the trees
    The trees are on my neighbouring properties, so this will involve more than just getting the loppers out (or even hiring a chainsaw). But let's move on this.
  6. Improve/repair the patio
    My patio aesthetic was probably set by a certain genre of childhood fantasy; Moondial, The Secret Garden, Labyrinth. Patios should be cracked, algae-streaked, mossy and overgrown, in my mind. That's lovely, but possibly this is the year I should embrace the pressure washer.
  7. Have more fun in the garden
    We had a very low party score in 2015, with the garden being more of a brief excursion space to admire new flowers, smoke or search for dinosaurs (depending on age and inclination) than the outside sitting room it's meant to be. Partly this was the weather, but also partly it was me not planning in enough gardenish fun. Can we fix that?
I also was going to do something about planning, but actually no time. Let's just get stuck in.

*Not you, obviously.