Wednesday, 18 July 2018

We're Having A Heatwave - the Fair Weather Gardener

We've had absolutely no rain and some very hot weather for the past six weeks at least. This could be described as the ideal summer, but it's far too dry for farmers and too dry for most UK gardens. Temperatures in the high 20's C have been recorded most days but one notable Sunday, the first of July, when the met office admitted it could be 32 outside, that was in the shade on my patio.  I put out a cheap thermometer and it shot up to 39 in the sun. That's over 100 degrees in old money! Even the cats stayed indoors.

So what's in flower? More than I expected, there are daisies and day lilies, miniature roses and oregano, clematis and thunbergia - also known as Black-eyed-Susan! Grown from seed, the marigolds and viola are just coming out. Also from seed, nasturtiums in pots were doing fine until the small white butterflies found them, now they are a scene of devastation, I think the caterpillars are running out of leaves. Should I take pity and transfer them to the remaining nasturtiums under the apple tree? And I have numerous pots of vivid, gorgeous red geraniums  - yes I know I'm meant to call them zonal pelargoniums, but I refuse!

My small lawn is completely brown and crispy, not a single blade of green. The plus side is that I don't have to mow it, I expect it will come back once we have some significant rain; this will happen at some stage, we are in England not the Sahara and grass rhizomes are very tough. The other plus is the ground elder has vanished. I kept mowing it in the lawn and rooting it out in the beds but it's an everlasting task. I don't suppose it's gone forever, some roots will survive even in bone dry soil, but I'm pleased for now that it's reduced so much.

The interior of the compost bin is dry and dusty, even though it's in the shade. The tiny fruit flies which normally swarm up in a miasma when I open the lid to tip in kitchen waste are growing sluggish. Slugs and snails have hunkered down, though some are still alive enough to know when I've watered the cucumbers in their gro-bag.

For over a week the sun was too much for those cucumbers, every day they wilted even though I was watering three times a day. I even tried shading them with a light-filtering parasol but it didn't really help. We've had a few small crisp cucumbers from them, though the skins are tough, and a couple more still on the plant. I haven't grown cucumbers before, a neighbour gave me two seedlings. They're short cucumbers and taste very good, but a lot of effort and a lot of water for ten small cucumbers, don't think I'll bother again.  Prickly pears might be a more appropriate crop for the weather!

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Dada Baroness - it's her birthday!

Today is the birthday of the utterly fabulous and more than slightly bonkers Dada Baroness (1874-1927)  Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. She has been largely written out of the history of the Dada movement by male chroniclers. She probably invented performance art in 2015-16 on the streets of New York. She was a painter, poet and creator of art objects. Her poetry has recently been published, her art is almost all lost.

Portrait of Elsa by Theresa Bernstein 1918

Elsa was friend/lover/collaborator of many more famous people in the dada period including Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Man Ray and Djuna Barnes. She wasn't really a Baroness - a bigamous marriage to a dispossessed Baron lasted only a few months. She lived in poverty much of her adult life. There's a fuller account of Elsa below -

Sunday, 24 June 2018

British Flowers Week - The Fair Weather Gardener

It's British Flowers Week from 18-24 June 2018. Every day seems to have become something-or-other day or week and we all wisely ignore most of them and get on with our lives. My take is to stick a comment on my FB feed if a particular one catches my attention, it's usually for being daft! However this one caught my attention by making me think about the flowering plants in my garden; how many are endemic species?

Started at the Covent Garden Flower Market in 2013, the official week is a promotion for florists and flower farmers around the country who grow and sell UK blooms, in the UK, as opposed to the giant flower markets in Europe. It could be interpreted as a bit Brexit-ish, but has a point, the international movement of billions of blossoms around the world is not strictly necessary - we can grow plenty here.

The current situation is obviously deleterious to the environment, you can't put flowers on a ship from Kenya to the UK and expect them to survive the journey in good condition, so they're air-freighted. Flying, as we all know, is bad for the environment. On average a plane is said to produce over 50 pounds of CO2 per mile of flight, although Eurocontrol International claim that aviation creates less then 2% of climate change gases. I'm trying to present a vaguely balanced argument here!

Back to the plants. I'm not a florist, just a gardener, but apart from the foxgloves, which are almost over and the glorious oxeye daisies, I wasn't sure which of the flowering beauties in my garden are native and which originated far from British shores. Much research is needed.

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Innocent by Ian McEwan - review

I was disappointed reading Amsterdam (reviewed in March), how the hell did that win the Booker Prize? I thought I'd better try a different Ian McEwan book, to see if he was still one of my favourite authors or if I should demote him. I went shopping, came home with The Innocent, written in 1990 but set in the mid 1950's.

The Innocent has been published with a number of different covers, trust me to buy the least interesting (the one on the right). Book covers are important but in this case had no influence on me, I was buying for the author.

It's sort of an espionage story, set in divided West Berlin during the 1950's. I was there as a teen-ager some time later so I decided I had to read this particular book. The setting is pretty real, a city still struggling to recover from the second world war, whilst suffering under the domination of the cold war. Although set before the Berlin wall was built, it felt familiar enough, I'd seen the check-points, the bomb sites. The main character is Leonard, a GPO technician seconded to work on a top secret project in the American sector of the city. I won't tell the story, impossible without spoilers.

The Innocent is very well written, as all McEwan's books are, he's a professional in every sense. The narrative is tense, a very good story. It does take a bit of digesting... hmm.  Maybe digesting is the wrong word. Is it a good read? Oh yes, definitely but maybe don't read the second half just after a large meal. 

Has it restored my faith in the author? Yes, it has. Although a very different story it takes me back to his first book, The Cement Garden which was also about innocence.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Danny Kirwan - Desert Island Discs

Fleetwood Mac's fantastic heavy rock number, 'Oh Well' was my previous desert Island choice a few days ago. Danny Kirwan, one of three guitarists in the band at the time the recording was made, has just died at the age of 68.

It's very sad, he was a talented musician and songwriter who never quite made his mark after he left the band in 1972. He was just 18 when he joined Fleetwood Mac, after his own band, Boilerhouse, had supported the Mac at several venues in London. Drummer Mick Fleetwood invited him to join the Mac, he then became Peter Green's protégé for a few gigs before as a fully fledged band member his passion for blues music combined with his creativity, he contributed his own compositions to their repertoire and their next five albums.

I saw him play with Fleetwood Mac twice, at the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone, in 1968/9 when the band were at their very best. I have his autograph.

Farewell Danny Kirwan, blues boy.

Triffids - The Fair Weather Gardener

Things that I don't recognise still come up in the garden. The latest, looking like triffids, appeared in April, pushing up through the undergrowth by the pergola. Several stiff stems with dark blueish green leaves arranged regularly up the stems. I believe the term for the leaf appearance is glaucous, good word! So, glaucous leaves, stiff straight stems and once three feet high, it produced thin branches with softer bright green leaves.

My triffids were interesting looking and quite architectural so I left them for quite a while as I didn't know what they were. The soft green leaves became bracts around tiny yellow flowers, which insects seemed to like, so I continued to leave the triffids alone. Hover flies seemed especially keen on the miniscule flowers and last weekend I saw my first wasp this year, also showing great interest in the triffids.

Then the flowers began to produce large, green berries, each with three lobes. At this stage I decided I really should take them more seriously, they were about to produce seed, did I want them to spread? I'm not in principle opposed to immigrants, but the garden's quite small so invaders are another matter, I have enough trouble with hops and ground elder.

I asked a few people, posted a pic on Facebook, but nobody seemed to know. So in depth research was in order. How did people ever do this type of thing before the internet? Google is an amazing research tool, almost everything you can think of is out there, somewhere in the aether!

After a few hours going through a range of search terms and looking at hundreds of photos of plants with green leaves, I came across the euphorbias. Now I've admired euphorbias in other people's gardens, but the triffids didn't much resemble any I could remember seeing, until I saw a photo  labelled Euphorbia Lathyris. So my triffid is Euphorbia Lathyris, otherwise known as caper spurge, also known as the mole plant because it's said to repel moles - old gardener's wives tale?

Caper spurge facts - it grows over much of Europe and Asia but has probably been introduced to the UK. It's now widespread and often comes up in abandoned ground. It's a biannual so that makes sense, it like to be undisturbed. I remember seeing the stems and glaucous leaves last year, but the bed was overgrown and anyway they weren't nearly so tall, so I didn't register that they were something unusual.

The other important facts about caper spurge: when ripe the seed heads expel seeds quite explosively, scattering them far and wide. Also the berries, which are said to look like capers although I can't really see it, are very poisonous and the milky sap is also poisonous and corrosive, causing skin irritation and serious harm if it gets in your eyes. In days of yore, beggars were said to have rubbed the sap into their skin to cause sores and so get more sympathy - another old gardeners tale? 

Anyway the caper spurge is now in the bottom of a garden bin, waiting to go to the dump. I compost a lot of things but decided this toxic plant might be unsuitable. I did enjoy watching it grow and I've no doubt that there are more triffids seeds lurking in the soil, just waiting to spring up. I might once again let them grow for a couple of years before they seed, because they're interesting plants.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Bedside Reading - American Teenagers

Reading in bed is serious reading, not just for putting me to sleep.  There's a small pile of paperbacks on a precarious triangular shelf by the bed, and three of them have bookmarks a few pages in, meaning I have actually started them.

With one the bookmark is at page 32, that's as far as I've got in three weeks and I'm not likely to get any further. In one of Waterstones' three for two deals, I picked it up in the shop because I quite liked the cover but mainly the title intrigued me - Paper Towns - by John Green. Shows how important titles are!  I read the blurb on the back and a couple of the reviews, but I should have read them all. It's not a badly written book, in fact the use of the language and structure is fine, but it hasn't really engaged me. It's my problem, do I really need to read yet another coming of age story set in small-town America? 

It's not as if there's been a shortage of them over the years. I've read some of the best - Catcher in the Rye when I was an actual teenager and To Kill a Mockingbird which made an impression as it's actually in the POV of a girl - very unusual at the time. My favourite is Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees - a strange, beautiful, dramatic story of a lost girl being cared for by three beekeeping ladies.

Anyway, American teens are always all over the TV/cinema; I've enjoyed Buffie the Vampire Slayer, The Breakfast Club, The Lost Boys and even Heathers. But now I've been there, a very long time ago and I have far too many tee-shirts to really care about the self-obsession of American teenagers!

I should have read all the reviews of Paper Towns, it's described as, "A coming of age American road trip that is at once a satire of and tribute to its many celebrated predecessors."  OK. For me there's only one road-trip book - Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  And so the answer is I probably don't need Paper Towns - by John Green, so it's likely to find it's way to the Oxfam shop. I'm sure it's a perfectly good story and I don't suppose the author will really mind that it's not for me, I hope not as my lack of interest isn't a judgement on his book. I have paid for it, so he gets his probably miniscule royalty, and it will be passed on to benefit charity and for others to read. I hope they do enjoy it.