Saturday, 30 December 2017

Shanghai Sponge City Project

I am alerted to a new concept for urban greenery; sponge city planning. As someone who lives in a city that sits on a spongy mass of gravel and clay, that oozes water in season (we're on a relatively gentle flood alert today) I am naturally fascinated.

Lingang/Nanhui in Shanghai is the green infrastructure experiment generating the headlines. The principles?
  • Permeable pavements - cutting rainwater runoff and reducing pollution of surface water. This can be retrofitted through replacement of existing concrete impermeable paving.
  • Wetland areas - crossed by raised walkways, these are also public parks and nature reserves.
  • Rooftop plants - absorbing water but also enabling temperature control through slow evaporation
  • Rain gardens - in traditionally wasted space such as central reservations. 
  • Rain recovery tanks - to take rooftop run-off.
  • Restoration of natural waterways - a lot of small rivers get filled in during construction; identifying and re-establishing these supports traditional flow and soil stability.
  • Man made storage lakes - variable depths and expanse depending on water needs of the time.
The percentages are exciting and the goals are high (a sponge city should absorb 70% of rainwater!) Like lots of infrastructure experimentation in China, progress is bewitchingly fast; I have little doubt that new principles and cheaper materials will emerge. Hard-wearing and fully permeable surfaces are particularly needed, as our effective and low-maintenance green roofing solutions. Many of the rest are familiar already; the estate I live in is carved across by gullies which twitch away our floods into the Thames, doubtless cut through the same spaces as earlier ditches.

Of course, the challenges of the Chinese cities are on a whole nother scale, and the imagination of the solutions are stunning. Look at these beautiful images of a rain park before and after monsoon rains, more seductive than any mighty bridge, maybe. There are hints of more to come; permeable, water storing roads?

From this damp city that is (right now) building seasonal lakes and installing drainage-first roads, I feel theere is too much focus on getting the water away and not enough on keeping it in the cities to grow our trees and cool our walls. I'd like us to become more of a sponge city.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

starving amaryllis

Instead of an amaryllis kit this year, I bought a lonely bulb from the fancy flower shop in the market. I had hardly any clean indoor compost at home so planted it in a desperate minimum of exhausted compost, the bulb more than half exposed. The results have been spectacular. Folks, starve your amaryllis. It'll panic and bloom spectacularly.

It's also a superb vermillion, so I'll feed it up and cosy it with some fresh compost - but after it's flowered.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

the secret fern garden on the plain

Just outside a rather rowdy cocktail bar on the Plain Roundabout in Oxford (home of the Swedish Death Nettle, among other fine cocktails) there is one of those old hatches; part smoke outlet, part escape hatch, part light well, old safety glass and cast iron.

This one has a fine fern garden growing in it:

Access hatch garden Access hatch garden
Access hatch garden

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

I never promised you a roof garden

It was all a bit W1A, the visit to [Redacted] HQ on the Strand last month. I accosted a stripling intern wearing the right lanyard in the lobby, only to be told that I had to sign in with the on-the-phone ladies in the lobby's starship deck. The phone calls were quite involved. After a little wait, I shifted gently, from one foot to the other. "I'm going to have to call back later," she said, with an eyeroll directed professionally at the phone, and not me. "I'm at work now."

Upstairs there was a wifi code and a display screen with controls in the next meeting suite, bemused presenters, quality tweet opportunities, new initiatives and disruptions, real-life testimonies from more of the interns. And this:

A balcony with a view

A balcony with a view A balcony with a view

A balcony with a view

Little rows of hunkered lavender and palms, tucked down out of the November wind, warmed by the listed and leaky windows lined the balconies. Access was easy; just a door that the wind whipped out of your hands as you opened it. I was expecting it to be locked away, but why would you lock away a view like this?

Some of the other people at the meeting were muttering about how the other half live, but my office building has a flat roof. We could do this. Most places could.

It's a question of successfully balancing the health opportunities (a view, rainwater recovery, employment opportunities, pollinator stops, insect elevators, pollution soaks, urban greening, mental elevation) against the safety risks (jumping and falling, typically, though there's sometimes some loading and drainage work too) and following your priorities.

This place had very much prioritised the awesome, uninterrupted, impressive view.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

December Roses

December roses are not unsual. You can knock snow off them and find a gust of heady scent tempting out sleeping bees for a hit of the good stuff. This pretty orange climber on a warm wall (here seen from inside the bathroom) was one of a froth of flowers on a bush in a sheltered spot in Cambridge. In my back garden I have a vigorous little red rose that never seems to be out of flower. It has generous froths of flowers; little clenched balls of crimson petals which you have to crush in your hand before there is a breath of scent; generous and mean all at once. It's a super culinary rose, too.
Once upon a time it was one of those cheap little roses in tins that people buy you when you leave a job.  Now it flowers through December snow and July heat from a bush I have to cut back every year.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

snow on the garden

I was weirdly determined that it wasn't going to snow, but to keep Tim happy I went and gave the Tree Fern a proper wrapping up and tethered it to the fence. Just as well, as we woke up to this on Sunday. So much for going to London. We gave up on plans beyond walking carefully to the local park to observe the insanity of children (building disturbing hordes of snowmen, then piledrivering them) and dogs. Just as well, the M40 was carnage.

Douglas Firs (the neighbours have the glaucous, easy-seeding, slower-growing variety rather than terrifying lime-green, bolting sterile lelandii) look at their prettiest in sticky snow, like Disney cartoons of fir trees. You keep expecting singing dwarfs or something. Out of shot, the Rhododendron is bent almost double, frost-collapsed. I have to remind myself that this is just what it does, and it will be fine. Hum, what's that on the table? Oops. They're not going anywhere till the melt.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

farewell to the lawn

That's it. I'm done. I'm giving up on the lawn.

My lawn, a once-neat square created by lifting nine paving stones (so about 1.5 m sq) in the front garden, was originally turfed, with spring bulbs naturalised into the drive-side edge, Glory-of-the-snow and Snowdrops. I would trim it periodically with shears. My neighbour would offer his lawnmover, which I took as a joke. It was so tiny. The arrival of daisies was momentous and celebrated. The arrival of dandelions was amusing and tolerated.

Then it became a space where the local tom-cats left each other messages. Long, pointed, fetid messages. Occasionally we'd startle Grey Trouble or Tom Daley (a smart young black tom with a white cravat) mid yowl or poo. "It's the circle of poo," we'd say, resigned cat-owners, and tidy up after the toms our own cat thoughtfully kept out of the back garden, mostly.

This regular attention lead to irregular growth. Lush patches, bare patches. In came the thuggy invaders, Alkanet, Sorrel, Pineapple Mint and Marguerite. Grass clumped up or died. There was no more lawn, just another bed and a scruffy one, at that. Time to ring the changes.

It's the end of the season sale at the Garden Centre off the bypass. The plants are tired, and Christmas trees have marched through the bedding section. Tim's idea of a tiny wildflower meadow is adorable but impractical. We need something low, tough and shrubby, that will tolerate hard conditions and occasionally being run over by wheelie bins or having a cargo bike planted on it. I head for the municipal shrubbery section.

Escallonia "Golden Carpets" promises low growth and pops of hot pink flowers in season. Fluffy purple Hebes on three for two will fill things out until it's established. Once it's down I'll thread in pop-up plants to head up through it. Alliums maybe, or some slender tulips with mutilpe heads.

And there will be no more lawn in my garden. 

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Dear Santa, for Christmas I would like...

The tinsel is in the shops. I've had my first mince pie. It's time to adjust my wish list. Here's what's making the list for 2017:
  •  Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Yellow Queen’ - once again, despite my conspicuous failure to successfully germinate the easiest seeds ever this year, I'm asking for Aquilegia in luscious sunset shades. 
  • Lily-Turf Liriope Muscari 'Okina' - easy-to-grow, eye-catching, low-maintenance.... and perfect for shady corners (which pretty much describes my entire garden).
  • Rhipsalis Monacantha - flowering cacti are calling me right now. This one is a rare Argentinian sprawler with exotic orange flowers and (!!!!) pink berries.
  • Coleus Blumei Wizard - Coleus I can grow just fine. The wizard series are single colour var.s rather than the usual allsorts mix, and include some lovely flames and a stunning flat-colour orange (how does it photosynthesise?). Seeds please, a cheap treat.
  • Chinese money plant - I'm feeling a bit guilty about this one, as it's painfully hip and ridiculously overpriced, but I've just opened up a great space for trailing greenery.
That'll do me, I think. Quite a short list compared to previous years, but long enough for surprises (and short enough that I can make up the set myself after Christmas if need be). 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

ten minutes before dusk

It was a warm day today, for December. In my garden (I got out for ten minutes before dusk, Jarvis Cocker's Sunday Service playing on the radio and a yellowish smear of light in the western sky) there were tender Fuchsias still flowering; the Confetti Bush, stalwart of the Southern Hemisphere, had a spatter of pink, honey-scented flowers; Marguerites, my unkillable invaders, were in cheerful flower; and there were flowers on the geraniums both inside and outside the greenhouse. So I went in search of Broad Bean seeds because a warm day in winter is the perfect moment to get stuff down.

I didn't have any broad beans. There weren't any bulbs waiting to be sown. It's been a disorganised autumn. So I rearranged my pots, pulling them into more sheltered spaces, filing a few in the greenhouse. I found one last chilli on a frost-browned bush.

The patio was thick with willow leaves. The sky was dark. The temperature was falling.

Time to go inside and dress a Christmas tree.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The imagined gardens of Wollaton Hall

We went up to Wollaton Hall in Notts for the Dinosaurs of China Exhibition in half term week, and so much of interest in the garden area happened there that I've been saving it up for when I have time to post. (The Dinosaurs are back in China now, but there's a 3D tour of the exhibition here and I know I shouldn't spoil but... Microrapter Gui holotype!  Fossil eyes! An entirely new way of flying!)

Wollaton Hall is one of those huge old seats of the wealthy now turned over to public enjoyment, with huge grounds (now containing an equally huge car-park) full of the usuals; lakes, grand landscaping, extremely chilled deer, orangeries in mild dis/pending repair:

the deer incident chimney fetishism
in the orangery garden warp 2

That dog had enough of a go at the deer that I stopped taking photographs in case I inadvertently photographed a beloved spaniel being gored; but from the reactions of the locals (tsks and disapproval rather than fear for the doggie) I expect this deer is a well-known photo oppportunity.

Orangeries are such joyful places in the UK; little flights from the grey and the damp. It's always wonderful to find one there and open for the public. This one had amazing ancient glass, thick and bubbled, which distorted the formal gardens beyond into wild psychedelic pulses and whorls.

stuffed bird collection Ravens
stuffed bird collection stuffed bird collection

Inside the house there is also a permanent collection, in cabinet of curiosities/treasurehouse style. Stuffed birds in diorama, glass jellyfish models, an archaeopteryx; but no furniture, no objets d'art. The effect is curiously serious, as if it had been assembled by an aristo with no time for anything pretty, unless it was also educational.

Blaschka's Jellyfish archaeopteryx
two roars sullen tragopan

The dinosaurs are peerlessly stunning. A combination of casts, 3-D printing, specimens of interest and holotypes. We find a palaeontologist vibrating with frustration at the ten centimetres of  space between the glass that must not be moved and the stone begging for microscopic analysis, and  spend a great ten minutes getting information about soft tissue discoveries, taxonomic arguments and the latest theories about what flew and how.

Garden dinosaurs are of course a thing,  my plant pots teem with Schleichs, and while many of them are either too luxe or too daft for my taste, I have an eye out for just the right beast.

Upstairs we've had the usual invasion of dinosaur art, imagining scenery and plumage and landscapes. I love these imaginary worlds, teeming with diagrammatic life. The palaeontologist is torn between his outright admiration for the gorgeous paintwork and desire to point out where the depictions diverge from the latest reconstructions.

Bizarre flyers Bizarre flyers
Dino murals Dino murals

Wild reconstructions of awesome animals stare down at us from all directions. Concrete, resin, feathers, fur and plastic. We get to touch a Mamenchisaurus. Selfies with a wire T-Rex; green tea with concrete worthies barely dressed in a coat of algae. Above the hysterical chimneyscape, crows play in the evening wind.

anxious statues exit via the gift shop
Tim with wire t-rex crows playing

I'm not sure our local County Houses have ever done anything as awesome as this.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

car-park moth

My car broke this week and I had to walk to the abandoned chemical works on the outskirts of town, just like I used to in the bad old days before unflappable Igors (gentlier with the clutch!) finally helped me through my vehicular aversion.

Things have changed since I last came this way; Cowley Centre has sprouted a new tiny parklet, like a promise of greener spaces to come (this is just a marker park!) and the Business Park 's wilderness area has shrunk again as another unit goes up. The pleached beeches outside the swanky call-centre are growing well, and the hedges are filling out nicely.

And in Tesco's car-park, I find this, basking in the mock-orange, warmed by exhaust fumes.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

grapes have done well

I'm picking my grapes late. I don't care for them enough. The bunches are overcrowded, and caramel rot, regular mould and all the other permutations are rife in the depths of the huge bunches. It's always a race; will they ripen, ere they rot? The weird, sickly, winey sweetness, the tough leathery skins, suggest that this year is not a good vintage; my concrete terroir has been a terror.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

all wrapped up for winter

The frosts are starting. My car is getting unwilling to start in the morning. Breath clouds the joggers as they scoot past me on the tow-path.

It's time to get my tenders indoors. Or, in the case of my magnificent tree fern, to get out the straw and the hessian, and a little plastic cap to make sure there's absolutely no way the growing bowl will fill with icy water.

As ever, I'm in two minds about the Abutilons, the stone fruits and the fuchsias. Either option takes a chance. Either they're under cover and at the mercy of my hapsidasical watering regimes, or they're exposed but at least getting light and moisture.

I feel a little bet hedging coming on.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

a growl from a twist of leaves

Clearing my flowerbed of overgrowth produced a slightly unexpected result when I found, tucked cosily under the bush clematis in the rain shadow of the back hedge, a pile of tidily pulled together leaves. One hedgehog consultation later I'd confirmed the presence of a hog, ordered a hog-home and "accidentally" bought a cat-food variety with hog appeal.

I've been careless and neglectful in the garden this year. I lost a clematis and an astilbe. The deep bed was a heck of a mess. But then there was this.

In the end, the catfood wasn't such a great idea. We're going again with mealworms as winter snacks instead. Hog needs a name if it's joining the garden (and the robin that floated down, too, attracted by my mulching). Maybe Hypergrowl and Savage Twitters? I got a fabulous growl when I checked in on my hog before popping the home on top.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

what's in my shed?

The shed is reaching crisis point. For some years now, our shed (a lean-to off the house side made of fence panels and roofed roughly with polycarbonate, which according to our survey "adds nothing to the value of the house and should be demolished") has been in the business of steady accumulation. Everything that has become too dusty, too faded or too icky, yet has retained its aura of specialness (its joy-spark, in the modern interiors vocabulary) has drifted out into this realm of mice and spiders.

what's in my shed 2017 in the shed

Hell-o Kitty there, the bobble-head photo frame, for example. For years she lived on my front windowsills as a protective spirit. The intention of the item is that you place a picture of your child into the frame, so it looks like she's wearing a Hello Kitty costume. Or alternatively like the child is trying to escape from Hello Kitty's jaws. In the absence of children I filled in a classic horror-mouth of fangs and slaver, now faded to a the uniform yellow of old copier paper. The pretty pottery tool-holder broken by our first set of cowboy builders. The Scare Owl, with genuine flapping wings, was given to me by my father when I was a teenager. It's intended to scare birds from your garden; you rig it up to flap periodically. Or not, if you like birds (which I do). I'm fond of it, but the texture renders it utterly undustable. Servelan was a gift from my older sister, a professional performer who is very fond of feathers and sequins. The feathers went to the dark side, but well. Supreeeeme commander.

in the shed in the shed

The piano telephone probably doesn't work. This is one of my partner's sparks, much loved, now retired. I like having a disconnected telephone around the place, for rehearsing and/or disposing of conversations that aren't really going to go anywhere. The putty commemorates an attempt to improve the windows in the verandah, which was partially successful. With the bulb glasses, I'm still puzzling about why I can't make them work. I remember growing lots of bulbs in bottles as a child. But as an adult, the knack seems absent, oddly.

in the shed in the shed

The door to the back garden has a cage door which can close over the shed door. The previous owner bred dogs, and presumably this was for puppy enclosement purposes. I've been known to use it to keep toddlers out of the shed, too, though nowadays the cage often has tender plants growing up it or hanging off it. Arnie was previously in the kitchen, but the kitchen is too clean for Arnie and his ilk now. The charms (and the horticultural fabric) dangle from an unused hanging basket I was trying to use to keep the cats off a catmint plant for long enough to establish. No use; my cats are fond enough of the nip to get through anything. Horticultural fabric is something I have a quantity of, but find a bit of a pain. Designed to slow down evaporation and reduce watering, you can line hanging baskets with it (where it will promptly wick out all the moisture and leave the basket bone dry), you can put it under seedling pots (where it will hold accessible water for the plants but also get welded to their roots as a result) or use it to hold water to increase humidity around cuttings or in greenhouses (and grow algae, and harbour slugs). I suspect it's one of those things that works best with a daily gardener maintaining moistness and checking for roots. Staff, then, ha ha.

overmatured planters overmatured planters

The shed is also something of a graveyard for discarded furniture; there's a coffee table out there, an old stool, the old TV bench, and our first drinks cabinet against the back wall (above). The glass shelves never really worked as a grow-house (the corner is too dark) but the planters on top have given pleasure over the years. The fancy Christmas orange box which was planted with houseleeks etc. has now matured to algal mush, however; and the two Halloween cauldrons previously used to intimidate trick-or-treaters (one contained tricks, the other treats, and all trick or treaters got one of each) but now growing bog plants, have matured through their glorious years of wasp-catching pitcher plants and squirming sundew, past the fancy bog plants in glorious flower, and are now growing (self seeded) that stubborn, shrubby little bog tree I see growing along the river and in the marshes all around here, which isn't any tree I recognise, and really won't fit in the container, and how on earth does it self seed when I've never seen the plant have a fruit or a flower?

This and other mysteries suggest we will have to tackle the shed. That's a good winter job, right?

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

the irrepressible daisy

Like everyone else in Oxford, I'm a bit excited by the New Westgate. But so far, it's not very green. Two of the Plane trees have returned of six that were removed, and these are of course young plants, not the massive mature behemoths we lost. There is sort of a roof garden, but the turf is astroturf.

This daisy is on one of the diversion routes, not far from the shopping centre. The green will return whether they will or no. But it could have been a roof garden. Now it'll just be whatever seeds there.