19 November 2009

in my cups

Growing up the wall at the front of the garden is a Cobaea scandens, The Cup and Saucer Vine (turn an open flower upside down and the name does make sense). This was grown from seed three years ago and has over-wintered with no added protection ever since. Introduced from Brazil it is tender and rarely survives the winter outside, it is usually grown as an annual when, sown in early May, it will quickly grow to twenty feet and be covered with flowers in a few summer months. Here as the weather warms in spring, despite being cut back by cold and by me, the plant re-grows rampantly to cover the whole wall and send strangely rubbery vines twenty feet up into neighbouring trees. I am glad it is held in check by the winter, it must be an awful weed in the tropics.

It has a long season of flower and continues until the weather is grim enough to damage the buds. The flowers are interesting in all stages of growth, from the first origami buds,
that swell to open,
first soft luminous green
then porcelain shell shades
until the colour deepens
and it finishes dark and dusky.

The funereal shade of the mature flower doesn't really stand out in the garden and, despite being continually in flower, there is never a great mass of them out at any one time. I much prefer the white colour variant 'Alba'. I grew this from seed last year and it was much nicer, its green to white progression of bells stood out from a distance and looked fantastic intermingling with the small flowered white clematis 'Summer Snow' (one of my favourite Clematis). Despite my favour it turned up it's toes in the cold and promptly died. Which is often the way of it.

18 November 2009


For the past few months there has been a flock of house sparrows visiting the garden daily and they are usually seen busy on the feeders. The flock has numbered up to 20 individuals, the most I've seen at once here. The only nesting site locally is, I think, at Odhams Walk, Longacre, and this does make them vulnerable to disturbance - I have written in support of the Odhams residents attempts to encourage these lovely birds and to try and protect the dense ivy growth where they nest (ivy does make building managers nervous). I do hope some decide to cross Shaftesbury Avenue permanently and use the nestboxes at the Phoenix this spring. It seems only fair payment after all the seed they've gone through.

15 November 2009

holiness - of a sort

In the 'greenhouse' are a few pots of various succulents and cactus that have languished unwatered on the top shelf in far too much shade and they all look rather unhappy. They are waiting patiently for the new building and prime positions on the brightest windowsills but this will be awhile yet. I am sure they will survive stunted as they are until moved to better growing conditions but in the meantime one of the stockplants, mother to numerous plant sale cuttings, is is definitely making its presence felt in my kitchen.

Stapelia grandiflora is one of the South African carrion flowers and the family is adapted to grow in arid scrubland with seasonal rainfall. I collected the seed for this twenty years ago in Zimbabwe at the top of Victoria Falls, they have extremely rapid germination and were up in 24 hours, and have kept a piece of this same plant growing since then. It grows as low spreading clumps of angular stems and in very well drained compost is easy to grow. It is happy dry from October until late April but when in active growth does like regular watering. Like all succulents it must never sit in water or the roots will rapidly rot. After growing all summer the new stems will slowly develop enormous swollen flower buds. They swell to bursting point and pop open into great hairy starfish flowers over six inches across. These have an aroma of decaying meat, not overpowering but very pervasive, and an antelope-corpse-bumholey-ness that flies cannot resist. The mimicry is so convincing that flies will lay their eggs on the petals. These are doomed to shrivel unhatched as each flower only lasts a couple of days or so before withering.

Strange and stinky but I do rather like them.

13 November 2009

clucking leaves

In the churchyard next door there are a lot of leaves - an awful lot of leaves. These are being swept up, bagged up and thrown on the dustcart as they are every year. What a waste! Every year I try to get as many as possible brought into the garden to stack till they break down to leafmould. The only problem with this is that they are all plane tree leaves, tough, leathery, slow to rot down and even the best method needs eighteen months for any success. This takes up a lot of space that we don't have to spare.

I have had fourteen dumpy ton bags stuffed with leaves stacked under the walnut tree while i thought creatively about dead leaves and hibernaculums and with my love of poultry and lacewings the answer was always going to be clucking obvious really.

Now five fat leaf chickens are home to hibernating insects.

So that just leaves ten bags remaining. . .

12 November 2009

alex's big banana bouquet

After the debates earlier in the year, about the aesthetics of the banana and its suitability as a garden plant, I have watched and waited. Waited for the moment the ugly flowering stems could be cut down. I'm told the flower itself has it's own phallic charms but the supporting stems go rapidly downhill, progressively shedding fibrous sheets that hang like dirty brown bandages. Two flowering stems had gone from aged to desperately decrepit and really had to go. One soft three metre stem was cut through easily at the base with a blunt weeding knife. Too easily - the sudden deadweight was very surprising and is as near to caber tossing as i've come. Vengefully I simply bent the other over till it snapped off with a succulent 'crack' like snapping giant celery. Not the ideal technique I know but very satisfying. The young stems remaining look much better with a bit of space between them and I think thinning the oldest may be the only way to make this monster any way acceptable to me.

Just acceptable.

Alex sits firmly in the banana "Yay!" camp and is deserving of a butttonhole.

Such synchronicity.

10 November 2009

wheesps and squeels

I had a conversation today. The sort i like.

lady: "i don't like wheesps!"

me: "sorry?"

lady : "the wheesps! i dont like them!"

me: "i'm sorry, i don't understand what you are saying".

lady: (with waving hands and loud buzzing) "wheesps! wheesps!"

me: "oh! wasps! yes, they can be a nuisance".

lady: "and squeels. i don't like them either!"

me (getting the picture): "yes, there's one been eating the walnuts".

A Squeel (eating conkers).

9 November 2009

pavior saviour 3

Laying the bricks is simple. They are just placed in position, knocked tight to their neighbours and gently tamped firm with a rubber mallet. For the circles they have been laid in a herringbone pattern. This looks lovely but is a nuisance to edge neatly. Small angled pieces need to be cut from bricks to fill in but using these reclaimed bricks does make this rather difficult. They are brittle and shatter to smithereens as often as not. The edges eventually were cobbled as best as could be and then a dry cement mix packed in around to set slowly as soil moisture creeps in. Each circle is raised in the middle and this has given each a gently domed finish. This looks very satisfying and will hopefully stand up to the levels of foot traffic without slumping. We shall see.

The straight path sections were laid in a simple grid pattern, also tamped into place but thankfully with little need to cut any to finish. Where the new paving meets the old the line of the bricks runs at a diagonal connecting both together very nicely. As this weathers in the join should not be noticeable at all.
To hold everything in place sand, copious amounts of sand, are brushed back and forth over the path. This works its way down into the gaps and locks it all together. Using normal sharp sand it takes a number of days for it to work right down and needs repeated sweeping back and forth. All advice says to get kiln dried sand for this which is meant to trickle down as easily as that in an hourglass. Unfortunately every building supplier I've contacted about this has no idea what I'm on about. I hate that.
Once the bricks were well firmed in I attacked any protrusions with an angle grinder to eliminate any trips and smooth off sharp edges. Very noisy and disturbing to a BBC interview being filmed in studios on Flitcroft Street. They had no qualms in demanding I stop for a couple of hours - I had no qualms in refusing (I pay my licence fee).

To finish off bed edging kerb stones were moved and reset at the path edge. They are enormously heavy and need nothing but their weight to sit firm.

The garden was closed to the public for six weeks during the repaving to a daily chorus of complaints. I think the results are worth the wait. If not I'm sure they will all be only too happy tell me.

pavior saviour 2

With the excavation completed the retaining edges had to be constructed for the circles. We used broken paving slabs for these, cemented in place and laid on edge they'll be strong enough to hold it all together and will visually connect this to other areas in the garden where this material has been used extensively. I am an intuitive bricklayer so the levels developed rather organically but should be rather suitable in this informal space (and would be nothing that an angle grinder couldn't correct)
The materials were delivered staggered over a couple of days. I am a terrible quantity surveyor and have no formulae at hand. Instead I use a 'hands apart and visualise' technique to work out what's needed so when materials arrive I always find it rather shocking. Of course it all has to be moved by hand so shocking preceeds daunting.

I now know that 4,600 bricks take 3 people one day to carry in and stack (with teabreaks) and that the garden is now 20 tons heavier.

Into the retaining circles tons of hardcore and finely broken slabs (broken by hand - now that's a volunteering opportunity) were laid and compacted with a vibrating plate. This is a deafening process so many thanks to the Phoenix Theatre stage door staff for supplying earplugs.
Over the top of this we spread sharp sand. Tons of the stuff. Mounded up in the middle and whacked into place the bricks - reclaimed and London - could be simply laid in place.

The straight sections of path, connecting the circles and to the compost area, would be edged with ACO Borderguard. This is a recycled plastic edging strip that just requires a compacted bed of hardcore and sand before being nailed into the ground. It is very simple to use but hard to find a supplier (the manufacturers list of suppliers appears to be made up as no one contacted had heard of it) - Screwfix do.

white delights on the water

I like autumn. Lovely things happen in autumn. The hectic days of summer have passed and the shortening day length triggers new prettiness both left and right. The colours of autumn might supposedly be limited to the reds and yellows of the changing leaves but there are white delights appearing in the ponds.

Water Hawthorn, Aponogeton distachyos, has opened the first of a long season of fragrant white waxy blooms. This South African shuts up shop for the summer dying back to a tuber, an adaption for drought in its homeland, it will happily lie dormant underwater until the cooler weather stimulates the new growth of floating paddle shaped leaves. The flowers emerge above the water as pointed, capped buds. The cap soon splits and the forked bloom extends. These are sweetly scented, supposedly like hawthorn, and each lasts for a couple of weeks. Pollinated by insects they readily set seed and this germinates freely in shallow water. They can grow in deep water, in our ponds the depth ranges from 6inches to a couple of feet and they are much more shade tolerant than water lilies, a useful attribute in shaded city gardens.
Spotted by an eagle eyed chairman in the shade of the banana are the flowers of the pondweed, Egeria densa. This is the archetypal pondweed of goldfish bowls and has long stems of whorled leaves. Growing at a rate of knots it has become established around the world as a garden escape and is classed as an invasive water plant in many countries. In our garden it has grown successfully in the shadiest of the ponds and from a small bunch added in the spring has filled the pond with great green ropes. Here it is easily controlled by pulling out any excess. Small white flowers with three delicate crumpled petals are held an inch above the surface on fine green stalks. Hardly a show but they are absolutely delightful. Chairmans like them too.

pavior saviour 1

The path at the rear of the garden has been in a state for years. Loosely laid twenty years ago it had become increasingly crazy paving as the cellar rubble beneath had settled and the trees have grown undermining roots. Some minor repairs had been carried out last year on the worst trip hazards but it has only been luck that teeth and hips have not been broken here. For wheelchair users it has been a bone-rattling roller coaster route so replacement has been long overdue and with the funding in the bank there was no more putting it off.
First the existing path was ripped up. Part of me likes this bit, the rest becomes increasingly anxious as the scale of destruction is revealed (i have in the past few years 'destroyed' the garden piece by piece - there is always the worry that it won't go back together - of course this doesn't stop me). All the old slabs will be reused for something interesting, in the meantime they are stacked outside the office. At this point it was suggested we could dig out the dead willow tree by hand - the trunk is three feet thick (as i must be) - after half a day it became glaringly apparent we could not. I am re-committed to not being led astray by the bright ideas of others.
Of course there is flexibility to any plan, what looks right on paper can actually be so wrong, so a general outline that can be adapted is needed. The initial design had the path ending at the wildlife pond at the back of the garden. When marked out on the ground this revealed a rather unnerving finish teetering on the pond edge so with a paint spray, a piece of string and a cane an alternate design was walked out. There is a lot to be said for working it out this way.

The new layout would connect two circular paved areas with straight sections of path. Easily marked out, less easily dug. To ensure that the new paving will last we put extra effort in to preparing suitable foundations. An incredible amount of material was dug out as the whole area was excavated down to a foot depth - or to the 'carpark' level (the car park the site once was remains just beneath). Thanks to Doug, Graham, Ollie, Garrad and Peter for just keeping at it till done.