Persistence and the new allotment

“Sometimes the only super power you need is persistence”, observes the alien visiting our planet and trying to make sense of our frail, violent, mortal species of middling intelligence in Matt Haig’s excellent book, The Humans. The alien makes a lot of astute observations about us, and am thrilled to prove this particular one true: after more than two years of waiting, chasing, hunting down and persisting, I have finally got a share in a communal allotment in my neighbourhood!

Part of the shared allotment

I am sooooo excited about this. Not only does this give me opportunities to grow more veg, but it’s also so nice to be part of a community of dedicated growers – a bit like blogging, but in physical form. The allotments are a ten minute walk from my house, and this particular plot is well-managed by Roberto and the co-allotmenteers, with a good south-facing aspect in parts, and of course a few challenges in other parts, like the mature trees that are jealously protected here by the local authorities.

My first patch, broccoli ready to go in

I have a little patch to start off with. It’s under an apple tree, but Roberto says we can prune this back. We’ve also got some communal projects like creating a giant potato bed that we will all have access to and will share the harvest. I was able to till my own patch and clear the weeds very quickly, the soil was lovely – clay with sand I think. So I already planted three broccoli plants which I started off from seed in July.

The greenhouse!

I’m right next to the greenhouse, which is very exciting indeed as I’ve never had the pleasure of a proper greenhouse before. OK, so one pane of glass is broken and needs replacing, but that can be dealt with. They’ve got sweet peppers, some salad crops and basil in there at the moment.

The pond

The shared plot occupies a large area – though I’m no good at estimating measurements, it’s got lots of different areas, including a natural woodland area, a pond, a large composting area with five bays, several sheds, water butts and an assortment of fruiting trees, including several apples, cherry trees, a plum, a fig and a quince. The pond has a blanket of duckweed, but contains about 80 frogs, I am told, which is good news for slug and snail control!

The picnic table

Behind a row of hops and next to a large bed of redcurrants is a picnic table, and there are plans to create a BBQ in this area too. I think this could quickly become my home from home.

Apples!

On my first visit, I was told I could help myself to the apples growing on the tree by my patch, which I did, and will make an apple and blackberry pie this weekend. I also nibbled on some raspberries, and took some chard to add to a curry for dinner.

I’ll leave you with a few images of what makes allotments so quirky and interesting, the personal touches and the Robinson Crusoe make-do-and-mend mentality. I love Roberto’s shed, made with sticks and an old door.

Six on Saturday: 25 Sep 2021: Wishes and Karma

I’m publishing two posts today – a rather excitable one on the new allotment I’ve got a share in – and this week’s Six on Saturday, as there’s still plenty to revel in as September draws to a close.

1 Salvia ‘Ember’s Wish’ was an impulse buy as I was killing some time last Saturday afternoon while my son did his theatre class. There’s a nice little garden centre run by some friendly Flems nearby, so this inevitably means picking up a plant or two. This one stood out. It’s one of the Wish collection salvias from Australia, and part of the sale proceeds go towards granting wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions. The flowers are a lovely coral-red with dusky pink bracts and there are purple tones to the leaves and stems. Only downside – it’s not fully hardy, but I will enjoy it through autumn.

2 Begonia ‘Picotee Sunburst’ is described as ‘an indefatigable bloomer from mid summer to the first frosts’ but my three in pots seem very fatigued. They have been growing at a snail’s pace since spring, and only now are deigning to flower. I’m probably not giving them something they need, and so they are sulking. Never grown them before.

3 Calendula ‘Daisies Mixed’ – many thanks to One Man and His Garden Trowel for the seeds for both this calendula and number 4. I was late sowing these, so they are flowering much later than my ordinary orange calendulas, but they are worth the wait. I’ll let them set seed and grow more of these next year.

4 Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ is an interesting colour mix, the petals starting off a soft yellow and then turning white, but retaining a hint of that yellow towards the centre, and the very tips of the petals are brushed with brown.

5 Dahlia ‘Bora bora’ is flowering again, this time in combo with some perennial sunflowers in the background. I really can’t get enough of this cactus dahlia.

6 Pot luck. We’ve got a neighbourhood WhatsApp group for a small collective garden managed by a very sociable Italian (is there any other kind?) up the road. I recently dug up some overgrown Alchemilla mollis, divided them and offered them to the group. They went like hot cakes. Then another neighbour offered some aged terracotta pots he didn’t want, so I was very pleased to get hold of these four, just in time for planting up bulbs. A bit of gardening Karma.

Plenty more Six on Saturdays to see on The Propagator’s site. Wishing everyone a great weekend. Here we have another glorious sunny September morning, so hope the weather is good wherever you are.

Six on Saturday: 18 Sep 2021: soft and gentle

September is proving to be a soft, mellow and gentle month, just as it should be, so at last the weather is doing what it’s supposed to. Though the days are shorter, and the night is encroaching ever further into the evenings, the sun still has a lovely warmth to it – we need to bask in it while we can. I feel like I’m on borrowed time, and even as I write this, am looking at that bench thinking I ought to be sitting on it! It’s a bit of a raggedy time in the garden, frankly, but grasses are throwing out their seed heads, and little pops of colour are brightening the vibrant border – still in its first year, so a bit gappy but pulling through.

A clump of Tithonia and a few bits and pieces

1 Sunflower: Helianthus annus ‘Velvet Queen’ was supposed to be one of the less tall, spreading varieties. Ahem. You can see its tall, very silly, spindly stem in the photo above, so it’s not at the right height at all, but the flowers are a nice russet colour. Silliness aside, I hope the birds will enjoy the seeds in winter.

2 Dahlia ‘Antibes’ has survived the usual ravages of slugs in the border, and is throwing out appropriately autumnal reddish blooms.

3 Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ with Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’ make a nice pairing. The seed heads of the Pennisetum are soft and furry, like rabbit’s ears. Nachtvlinder, now becoming rather trendy, is a sultry velvety shade, and is doing pretty well for its first year.

4 Gladiolus byzantinus has finally appeared, planted out this spring. There are more on the way I hope. In the morning light, it looks pinker, but it has a nice magenta tone in the petals.

5 Gladiolus ‘Velvet Eyes’ came as a bit of a surprise. I’d planted a bunch in the spring of last year, and they all flowered last August, with terrible timing as I’d gone to the UK for three weeks during that ‘Covid opening’ phase of last summer, so I missed them. Then I lifted and stored them in the shed last winter, and the bulbs went mouldy. This single survivor was missed and left in the border, surviving one of our harshest winters. There’s a lesson in there!

6 Pyracantha ‘Golden Charmer’. Coming to six already, I realise how much is still going on in the garden, but I have to include some of these delightful berries. Pyracantha is one of those plants that divide opinion. My neighbours have one and call it ‘the devil shrub’ because they hate pruning it, getting caught up in its admittedly rather spikey thorns – but they prune it so much that it doesn’t have a chance to produce berries, so no wonder they don’t like it, they are missing its best feature! I really enjoy these generous clusters of berries and have two in pots near the house.

That’s all from me this week, I need to get to that bench, quickly before the day and all its activities take over. For more Six on Saturdays from around the world, visit The Propagator, and have yourselves a lovely weekend.

Six on Saturday: 11 Sep 21: Keep it in the family

The Balat Greenhouse, 1854

This week’s Six on Saturday comes from my favourite section of Belgium’s botanical garden at Meise, just north of Brussels. It’s called the Cronquist garden (after the American botanist, Arthur Cronquist) and houses an enthralling collection of herbaceous plants, arranged neatly by family in beds – Cronquist was apparently instrumental in developing a new classification system for plant families. The beds are set off by an elegant glass and steel greenhouse built by Alphonse Balat, the court architect of Belgian King Leopold II. I was there on a rainy Friday this week, so apart from the gardener, I had the place pretty much to myself and was happy as Larry, darting around from one eye-catching plant to another.

1 Ipomoea lobata, also known as the fire vine, firecracker vine or Spanish flag. This really was like a firecracker, immediately catching my attention as I entered the garden and making me wonder why I didn’t have one of these beauties in my garden. I love the gradation in colour in those flower buds. It’s native to Mexico and Brazil; I have a theory that plants from that part of the world have done really well this year due to the intense humidity.

Ipomoea lobata

What was quite clever was the way it was planted up a simple steel grid structure, with individual vines planted on either side, seven in total. The height was also perfect, not much taller than me, so around 1.6 metres, or 5 foot 4 inches if you prefer imperial – so no ladders required!

2 Aster novi-belgii. Every garden should have an aster for a September display, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Aster novi-belgii

3 Tagetes patula. These are French marigolds, or are they? The French think of them as Indian, as in their common name Oiellet d’Inde, but the Dutch associate them with Africa, Kleine Africaan. But they’re all wrong, they are native to Mexico and Guatemala! In any case, whatever we call them, these are delightful, with purple hints in the stems and leaves, and good height of around 1 metre.

Here’s an idea of how to combine them in a border. Just look at that yellow Helenium behind, weighed down with all those flowers, and there’s a tall Eupatorium on the other side.

4 Phyla nodiflora. I thought this was a charming little combo from the Verbenaceae family: an endearing little ground cover plant growing around a lemon verbena, Aloysia citrodora. The Spanish and Portuguese brought lemon verbena over from South America in the 17th C and cultivated it for its oil. I am less familiar with the Phyla nodiflora, aka the frogfruit or turkey tangle, presumably it got that name in the southern United States, where it is commonly grown as groundcover and perhaps where turkeys get tangled up in it, poor things!

5 Abelmoschus esculentus. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied these wonderful-looking seed pods, but it’s only when I checked the label that I realised these were Okra, or Lady’s Fingers, making them both delicious and beautiful. Who would have thought we could grow these here and end up with such a fine specimen for the September garden and the main ingredient for a delicious ‘bamya’ stew: okra cooked in tomato sauce with whole garlic cloves and served with basmati rice? I absolutely must try growing them next year!

Abelmoschus esculentus

6 Periscaria orientalis. Now, judging from my own garden, there are a lot of floppy plants at this time of year, weighed down with the weight of their blooms. But not this one, standing proud and poised as a ballerina.

Periscaria orientalis

Well I had to tear myself away from this lovely garden, where I could easily spend hours examining plants, and I also have to tear myself away from writing more as I’ve reached the limit of six, which is just as well, otherwise you’d all get bored dear readers! You’ll find other botanical sixes from all around the globe here too, on the Propagator’s site.

In my own garden, I’ve tasted the first of the sweetcorn, which was delicious but the cobs were only half-developed, probably not enough sun and heat this year. There are still a few sweet peppers and chillis coming along, and I think there are some radishes growing up on the shed roof, I really should get up there to investigate! Hope everyone has a good weekend – it’s looking a bit gloomy outside but I might try to get a bike ride in.

Six on Saturday: 04 Sep 2021: mellowing

Who captured the feel of autumn better than John Keats, with his ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’? Well, we are not quite there yet, it’s a bit early for mist, and fruitfulness is a bit disappointing, as we’ve had very few apples and no grapes this year. But there is most definitely a mellowing of the light, which is to be welcomed, making the plants glow softly in a most appealing way. Add some blue skies and sunny days, and things are on the up after the dog days of late August. I prefer September, when the garden might be slowing down, but the rhythm of the year re-establishes itself: that back to school, back to work feeling, which in gardening terms is back to planning for next year, with my first bulb order arriving and awaiting planting (Camassias, Fritillaries, Alliums). Let’s get started with the first Six on Saturday of meteorological autumn:

1 Cricket of considerable size. As I was belatedly staking some sagging Heleniums, this fellow was watching me through the Miscanthus. One of those moments to stop and stare, after running in for the camera, as he slowly crept away with sticky padded feet. He was at least 7cm long. Very exciting, as have never seen one of these in the garden before.

2 Verbena bonariensis. I’m pleased that this plant is gently seeding itself about the place, bringing in the bees and butterflies. It’s moved into the veg patch, which I don’t mind at all as it hardly gets in the way with its narrow stems, in fact there is little for it to get in the way of, as the space is normally occupied by tomatoes, which went out when blight struck. I replanted with radicchio, which all got eaten, despite precautionary anti-slug measures. So the Verbena has free reign.

3 Rosa ‘Compassion’. Now, speaking of mellow, take a look at how this rose is transformed by the light. When it flowered profusely in June, it was predominantly pink. Now the apricot is coming through much more strongly. I’ll let you decide which is prettiest – the bud on the cusp of opening, or the faded bloom (you’ll need to ignore the hoverfly being devoured by a tiny white spider).

4 Hydrangea paniculata ‘Vanille Fraise’. Here’s another flower I like best at this time of year, when it’s glory is fading and the pink is gradually suppressed by biscuity buff tones.

5 Hylotelephium. Or Sedum if you prefer the old name. I’m always astonished by the number of bees dining on this mix of a pink sedum given to me by my mother-in-law Marianne, and a white ‘Iceberg’ that I added. These grace the sunny sweet spot of the front path, with lavender behind them and geraniums in front, and further up the indefatigable Nepeta is having a second flush. Lots here for our pollinator friends over an extended period of time.

6 Geranium Rozanne. Speaking of indefatigable, this hardworking geranium is also I think looking better in the softer autumnal light – in brighter summer sun, it looks a bit washed out. Now it’s got a glow to it, and with any luck it will keep this up into October, maybe November: ‘to set budding more, and still more later flowers for the bees, until they think warm days will never cease, for Summer has o’er brimm’d their clammy cells‘ – I’m sure Keats would have made a great Six on Saturday blogger.

So there we have it, a change from the warm reds, oranges, terracotta and turmeric shades that I’m rather partial to – no doubt they’ll be back next week, as those Tithonias are just clamouring to have their photo taken again. Many thanks to our host The Propagator, and to all the participants too, wishing you all a great weekend.

Six on Saturday: 28 Aug 2021: summer’s end

I’m late posting for this week’s Six on Saturday, I was going to give it a miss: like the garden, I am flagging at this time of year. The end of summer often feels quite sad to me. My camera’s also temporarily out of action so the photos aren’t great quality, but never mind, they will do. There are still a few things going on after all, and I even got some spinach and raddicchio planted this afternoon, so there’s that to look forward to.

1 Helenium ‘Indian summer’. This photo looks upside down but I had to take it from a funny angle, on top of which the plants are leaning heavily to one side. They are rather hidden among other things in the vibrant border – I’m struggling to find space for everything – but they’ve got the right vibe for late summer. Must stake them better!

2 Tithonia ‘Torch’. These have actually done really well, grown from seed, and I have five of them grouped together so they add a good splash of orange. I have belatedly realised they go together well with tall verbena bonariensis, which is further down the border, so maybe next year I’ll plant them together. It’s very hard to get a group photo though – they are large plants, of different heights, and the flowers are often facing skywards, so instead here’s a close up of a bee enjoying a slightly tattered but still bright bloom.

3 Cucamelons. I grew theses from seed for the first time this year, and I got the idea to train them up the chicken coop netting from a Youtube video of an Australian who did the same thing to provide shade and occasional food for his chooks. They scrambled up happily here, and three plants provide a small bowl of these tasty mini cucumbers with a hint of lime.

4 Chillis. The Thai Dragon chillis are turning red so they can go in a Thai curry any day now. The yellow Biquinho (Portuguese for ‘little beak’) have been interesting. They have a fruity, chilli kick without actually being hot, so they work well in a salad or to pep up a baguette sandwich. I see another blasted lime tree seed is wedged in the Thai chilli*

5 Rosa ‘Compassion’ with tall grass. Ouch, sorry for the fuzziness of my ancient iphone camera here. I do like this combo of feathery grass (in a pot) with apricot rose (the flowers of this rose are pinker in its first flowering, I find, and more apricot in its second).

6 A seat for autumn. Our patio and decking-terrace area are under the canopy of the neighbour’s mature trees, including the lime trees you can see in some of the photos above, which means I spend far too much time these days sweeping up lime seeds up and picking them out of plants (see point 4*). During one such Herculean cleaning operation, I moved a few pots around and decided to put a little table and chair in the midst of my patio pots and next to the mini greenhouse. As summer fades into autumn, and the light shifts, this becomes the perfect spot for my morning cup of tea.

It’s also next to a pretty white-pink rose which is having a good second flush of flowers and has a lovely scent. It’s been in a tall blue ceramic pot for at least five or six years, but shows no sign of flagging and is always healthy. I like the fact that despite being a double rose, it shows its stamens and provides nectar/pollen for the occasional bee.

That’s all for now, thanks to The Propagator once again for hosting, and I’d better dash as I’ve got a family appointment to watch the latest unlikely plot twist in ‘How to get away with murder’ on Netflix.

Six on Saturday: a Kentish coastal garden: 21 Aug 2021

This week’s six comes from my mother’s front garden on the Kentish coast. After considerable entanglement in red tape and form-filling and testing, I have made it to England at last.

The coast nearby

1 Pebbles and stone. The weather has been rather dull and grey, but it still feels good to be back and to see the sea again. It’s a pebble beach here, and several pebbles and stones make a nice feature of the gravel garden.

2 Feathery grass. This big clump of pink wispy grass in one corner of the garden is looking great. Not sure what it is though!

3 Rosemary. Also enjoying the good drainage and sunny aspect is this rosemary, creating some aromatic seating.

4 Musa (banana). It’s very mild here, so ideal for those exotics that would need mollycoddling in most other parts of the country.

5 Cyperus papyrus. Another nice structural plant, this papyrus is a reminder of Egypt, where my mother spent some happy times visiting the stunning Valley of the Kings in Luxor, boat trips on the Nile, long, hot sunny days…it’s a beautiful country.

6 Passiflora caerulea. Growing on the fence, this is another plant that does well here.

That’s all for now, next week normal service in Belgium will resume, assuming we get back across the border with the requisite forms and tests. The days of careless, spontaneous travel are a distant memory. Virtual visits continue unhindered though, so to see more gardens around the world pop over to The Propagator. Have a great weekend!

Six on Saturday: 31 July 2021: Save the insects!

A bumblebee enjoys the Oregano

It’s been a week of gusty winds and unsettled weather, but also of good-ish news: double-vaccinated EU residents are finally going to be allowed to travel to England without the need to quarantine, allowing families (like ours) to reunite. Except for anyone coming from or going through France to reach the shores of Albion, which we do. We’re told this is because there are cases of the beta variant of Covid-19 on Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean which happens to be an overseas French territory. Now I know we’ve been fighting wars with the French for much of our history, and there’s a bit of a love-hate thing going on, with recent seismic events testing the love a little bit, but surely this is going trop loin?

I’ll leave you to ponder that and move on to the less testy and altogether more wholesome Six on Saturday, as hosted with aplomb every week by The Propagator. Here are my favourites this week:

1 Oregano. A great nectar-provider at this time of year, the bees have really been enjoying it, as have the cabbage white butterflies. We also enjoy it, especially in an omelette or with tomatoes (it’s a lot less fussy than basil).

2. Bee beetle (Trichius gallicus) on Leucanthemum. I’ve downloaded a new app to help me identify insects, and have found one that also logs observations on a website for scientific monitoring (for Belgian readers check out Waarnemingen). Given how much trouble insects are in, especially after the cold spring we had this year, and the effects of climate change on weather, this seems like a good idea. This sweet little beetle is apparently relatively common and a native species, though it’s the first time I’ve seen one.

3. Salvias. I’ve developed quite the little collection of these wonderful plants: they’re long-flowering, disease-resistant, aromatic, pretty and excellent nectar providers from summer through to autumn. British gardener Sarah Raven claims that if you plant these next to roses, the roses won’t suffer from blackspot. I’ve put a few near my roses to see what happens and will report back to you on the results, but even if it doesn’t work, these plants are useful to extend the interest of the shorter rose-flowering season and are great for insects. I couldn’t decide which to feature, so here’s a gallery of my favourites flowering now in the garden.

4. Aconitum henryi ‘Sparks Variety’. The intense blue of this aconite is quite compelling, I find. I had another aconite that flowered in the spring, which was less branching than this one and a touch lighter in colour, and had confused them: it seems I have somehow got two different varieties, not sure how that happened!

5 Hydrangea paniculata ‘Vanille Fraise’. It’s been a great year for the water-loving hydrangeas, after all they’ve had plenty of it! They are brimming with health and vigour, as this one demonstrates.

6 Vegetables. The first cucumber is about ready to pick, don’t you think? Last week I had to remove all the tomatoes because of blight, but the cucumber has really enjoyed this year’s humidity and is climbing up the wall as if it plans to go visit the neighbour. The sweetcorn is also looking promising, as are the Thai Red Dragon chilli peppers.

We’re off on holiday next week, so I might not be posting for a little while. I just hope the designated care-takers keep chickens, cat and seedlings of biennials and veg alive. Have a great weekend, may the weather be kind to you and hope to catch up with you again soon.

Storm damage

More torrential rain in Belgium with further flooding in places, more upturned cars (a phone typo had this as ‘upturned cats’, as far as I know this isn’t a phenomenon but you never know) and muddy streets. Hope those climate talks are going well. A particularly heavy shower today brought down a heavy dahlia stem, so in they came!

The sea urchin is Dahlia ‘Bora bora’, and there’s also Dahlia ‘Antibes’ and scented pelargonium leaves. Sometimes I am reluctant to cut perfectly good flowers for a vase, but in this case the weather decided for me.

Six on Saturday: 24 July 21: summer’s here

Summer days are here, the living is pretty easy, especially now that work has slowed right down and the sun has come out to play. After all the rain we had here, I’m relieved, and cat-like, I enjoy basking in the dry heat. The deckchairs are out and the BBQ is in use.

Morning sun, full of promise

For Six on Saturday, I’m going to start with a dazzling dahlia:

1 Dahlia ‘Bora Bora’. I featured this last week, but look how it’s changed to the most unusual sea urchin! I love it. This almost makes up for the slug decimation of Chat Noir and other dahlias that were supposed to be on parade.

2 Blight on tomatoes. OK, let’s get this one over with. As mentioned earlier this week, we’ve got blight for the first time ever. Everyone seems to have it round here this year. I was really hoping I could save these tomatoes by stripping off the bad leaves and letting them ripen in the sun, but it’s not looking too good, is it?

Veg-bed tomatoes

What to do now? I noticed that the ones I’ve got growing in pots against the back wall are looking a bit better, although the leaves aren’t too good. It will be a poorer summer indeed without tomatoes, or courgettes – these have been destroyed by slugs of course.

Wall tomatoes

3 Begonia in a big blue pot. Onto better things. I mentioned that I felt Geranium Rozanne was lacking a little je ne sais pas quoi in this corner near the back door, perhaps a bit too dominant in pale blue. So I’ve added some white to draw the eye with this begonia (which I found in the garden centre, no label: does anyone know it?).

4 Daylily ‘Stafford’. Another one that’s been featured recently, for those who may remember, but it’s adding such great impact now with those warm, spicey tones and I’ve also figured out its name: Stafford. Seems too traditional for it. Daylilies do very well on our Belgian clay, so naturally I am tempted to try a few more.

5 Lantana camara ‘Orange’. I had an unusual, somewhat unsettled childhood, with expat parents who were very adventurous and moved around the place a lot. So when I was seven years old, I found myself in Jordan. My Dad worked at a university outside a small town, and so we lived on campus and my friends and I had free reign to play outside within its perimeter all day long. The almost traffic-free roads were lined with Lantana camara, so this takes me right back. I love the intensely aromatic leaves (the oils of the plant are used in insect repellents) and the tiny florets which always fascinated me (seven-year-old me liked to unpick each little flower from the main floret). For the first time, I managed to get this plant through a European winter – it sulked in the cellar in front of a south-facing window, but has really picked up now.

6 Hypericum kalmianum ‘Gemo’. I prefer this compact but showy little shrub to the larger Hypericums. It stays quite small but flowers enthusiastically from now through to September within minimum fuss, and adds a cheerful note right by the front steps. It looks good pretty much all year round, retaining its dark seed pods and a nice woody structure in winter, so that’s not bad for the front of house.

Well, I was hoping the sun would stay with us a little longer so that I could lounge in my deckchair and read a good book, but today starts overcast. I’ve sown some biennials for flowers next year (foxgloves, wallflowers and sweet williams) and pulled some more bindweed out here and there. The garlic is ready to harvest, and the blackberries are starting to come in, I might sow some radicchio. It’s a nice time of year, without too many urgent tasks.

For more delightful Six on Saturday posts from gardeners far and wide, see The Propagator’s site.