Of Vincas and victory

My plan to add colour and interest to the herbaceous borders is taking shape.

It’s also important to use denser planting at the front to mask the pipes carrying wires for a lighting system we’ve just had installed further back in the borders. The idea is to transform the feeling of sitting out on the balcony facing a dark, indistinct space to one where subtle lighting gives added depth and interest to the garden at night.

So over the weekend (here in Egypt that’s Thursday and Friday for many of us), I tested a new gardener by getting him to dig out an extension along the front of the middle section. He did this using the traditional tool, a “fas” or adze with long wooden handle and curved blade.

The adze has been used since time immemorial in Egypt to dig farmland and garden; used with skill it’s an amazingly versatile tool, far less brutal than its appearance suggests and useful for anything from digging an accurate edge to carrying soil and even seedlings for transplantation.

Once he’d done the basic hard work, I let the clumps of grass dry out in the sun before shaking off the soil and then cleaning the strip of freshly turned soil of roots and other waste: we are still turning up builders’ rubble every so often.

On went some semi-formed compost, which will just have to finish breaking down in the soil as I’m a woman with a mission and I don’t have time to wait; and then seven Catharanthus roseus or Vinca rosea seedlings of assorted colours from the nursery in Madinat Nasr.

For some reason while we pronounce them “Vinca”, gardeners and nurserymen here all call them “Winca”, which brings to mind Ella Fitzgerald and a certain song about calling the whole thing off… But determined gardeners carry on regardless and I got the whole lot planted in one go, along with two tiny seedlings from a lovely mother plant in the opposite border, which has pretty white flowers with a deep red centre.

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The trouble with buying seedlings from nurseries is that you can never be sure how well-established they are. They tend to have poor root systems and to be potted up using heavy black soil, clay-like in consistency, that contains no life or organic matter and no air, thus stifling the roots. It’s hard to get the tender little plants out of the pots – I sometimes cut them out – and even harder to preserve the root systems intact.

So I extracted them as best I could, popped them in, tucked them up, watered them well and sent a gentle prayer to heaven. Perhaps some yoga would also help bring them on…

There was one notable victory along the way, however: an earthworm! Now it may seem odd to celebrate the presence of a worm in our border, but it has been a struggle ever since I began work on the Jasmine Garden some six years ago to bring the soil to life.

As fast as I add compost and manure, leaf mould and mulch, a worker comes along and “cleans” it all up. That verb “nadafa” (to clean) needs to be strictly limited in the garden to litter, bugs and pests. I am still trying to sift through the bags of “cleaned” leaves and twigs from last April, adding them steadily to the compost bins; meanwhile, the bags themselves, made of flimsy plastic, are disintegrating in the sun!

We will see whether the Vincas take to their new home after the trauma of transplanting, and how well the very small seedlings snitched from under their mother’s wing will fare. Altogether, a happy weekend’s work in the garden.

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