Making merry (and mischief)

The bugs have been having a ball in our garden this year. I guess gardening organically means that, for all the abundance of wildlife in the garden and therefore of natural predators, there’s also an overwhelming buildup of pests.

It didn’t help that I was away for nearly two months from mid-July. Or that I’m not particularly stringent about “hygiene” in the garden. If the idea is to let nature have her way –  with a bit of guidance – why obsess about collecting up leaves and “cleaning” the beds? It’s a word I hear constantly from the gardeners: The verb nadafa (to clean) is over-used, and needs to be, er, swept away.

There have been some unexpected encounters. In the spring, a praying mantis in the big basil (Ocimum basilicum) near the balcony; more recently the garden has been alive with crazy jumping grasshoppers/crickets (they love the piles of drying materials between the raised beds) and one magnificent locust:

 

Yesterday, as the gardeners began trimming our hedge of Ficus nitida (Indian laurel), dense with dead wood, infested leaves and dust, down came a stem with a truly beautiful caterpillar attached. Magnificent in the finest shades of green camouflage, he seemed to have meandered straight off the toadstool in “Alice in Wonderland”, leaving behind his sheesha:

Caterpillar 9.17

Astonished by his glorious colouring, I took some photos and then popped him in with the clippings to ride off with the waste – giving him a fighting chance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that: I would love to see him transformed into a full-fledged butterfly.

The overgrown borders have turned into the usual haven for snails. Wherever the perennials are dense, usually under cover of frangipani (Plumeria acuminata), hibiscus (H. rosa sinensis) and the like, it’s damp enough for snails to make merry and multiply like there’s no tomorrow.

The explorer climbing up the rose (Rosa spp.) is behaving true to form: Snails are often found at a considerable height on anything from hibiscus to the walls of the house! The damage is limited in the borders but much more problematic in the raised beds, where they hide along the sides and in corners, and behind stones or bricks used to batten netting down.

Also hiding in the borders are vast tribes of woodlice, and even some small, dark cockroaches – all of them frantically burrowing into the soil the moment I raise the cover over their heads.

Among the truly spectacular casualties this summer was the chard in RB2, the culprits most likely a herd of rampant caterpillars:

Chard destroyed 9.17

The damage was so comprehensive, it made me laugh. I cut the skeletons down, and fed the roots with compost to encourage new growth, while taking care to cover the bed well with netting. We shall see…

As usual, however, it is the mealy bugs that are wreaking havoc in all directions, especially on the roses, plumbago (P. capensis), Indian laurel and some fruit trees.

One of the lime trees, the kumquat and the Italian lemon tree are all affected not only by mealy bugs but also by other pests that leave sticky webs around the stems, leaves and fruit, as here on the kumquat.

Kumquat 9.17

This could be scale, as it appears to be associated with the patches of white, containing insects, on the stem. Not so much of a problem previously, but quite obvious this year.

To combat the fruit flies, we stripped the guava tree of leaves and immature fruit early in the summer. It should flower again soon and produce fruit in the winter, when there are no flies – but, meanwhile, the pests moved on to the lemon tree nearby and did their best to break through the defences:

Lemons under attack 9.17

According to Eric Moore*, the Middle East is a “relatively pest- and disease-free environment.” for gardeners. Well – not in my experience! I can’t accept spraying with chemicals, so I will have to do a lot more to encourage the birds, lizards, beetles and spiders that might help to combat them. And be more conscientious about cleaning out the infected stuff…

* Gardening in the Middle East – Eric Moore – pub. Stacey International

 

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Back to work

I have been away for so long this summer; it seems like aeons since I was stacking protective “mulch” in the raised beds and frantically clipping borders ahead of going away. Now, six weeks later, I am back in the Jasmine Garden and it’s payback time.

This is stating the case quite mildly. Some plants have gone wild. We have bizarre and straggling roses, with mini-blooms atop meandering stems that reach above my head; the rosemary mother plant is about halfway across the lawn (which has flaked out almost completely in places); some hibiscus flowers are almost atop the hedge:

Hibiscus by hedge 9.17this means they are some 7 feet high, possibly more; the osteospermum is galloping across the path, even though it was well trimmed before I left. My old friends, the ornamental basil plants, are full of flowers in some places but in others have gone bohemian with wild flowering heads and long brown fronds full of seeds.

Some of my favourites, however, gave up the unequal struggle with the summer months in Egypt and faded away:

Dianthus 9.17Dianthus – and this was a particularly lovely one – couldn’t cope whether in pots or in the borders, and I have lost several. What a pity! I have loved their grey-blue leaves and sweetly-scented flowers in colours from pure white to delicate pink to salmon-red and even deeply luxuriant crimson. Some had been with us for a few years, and I truly feel their loss.

But – and there is usually compensation of sorts somewhere in the wilderness – there are some high points in our now-wild borders, with their overgrown edges, rambling perennials and surreal roses. As I surveyed the front border I came across jasmine tumbling down from the top of the hedge, a mass of white flowers cascading through the shrubs and speckling the lawn below:
Jasmine cascade 9.17

I was alerted first of all by the glorious fragrance in the air nearby; this is by far the best of the jasmines this year, though the climber over the gate is running it a close second and has now twined itself into the trees outside our garden, as well as over the gate, and, come to that, the jasmine on the pergola is doing well too.

And then, in the side border, a lovely surprise: our rounded-leaf frangipani has produced blossom this year. As far as I remember, this is the first time it has flowered so I suppose it is now fully at home in a new garden, a new country. We brought it as a small cutting from our garden in Doha some 7 or 8 years ago, asked the gardener to place it in the ground long before the herbaceous border existed, and then rather forgot about it. Now, we have a real beauty:

Frangipani 9.17It is flowering long after the other, larger frangipani bought in a local nursery, and produces even more glorious blooms than the local variety, which also has more pointed leaves. Positioned close to blue plumbago (from South Africa), and the bottle brush tree (from Australia), with the Indian laurel hedge behind, this lovely tree is one small part of our international garden.

Meanwhile, all sorts of grasses and weeds I haven’t identified have sprung up all over, including in the new herb bed. I need to get to them before the heads of seed throw their loads to the winds, or I shall be scuppered for weeks to come.

So I am rolling up my sleeves to get on with tidying up and rescuing, composting and clipping, as fast as I can. I have to get a move on, not only in the borders: The raised beds urgently need attention as some of them are drowning in rampant chicory, tomato plants and basil, and the planting season is just around the corner. More on this in my next post.

“A very pretty garden”

The purpose of this post is not to blow my own trumpet. But a young visitor, who popped into our garden the other day, bowled me over with the comment: “You have a very pretty garden!”

At this time of year, when flowers (Hibiscus, Ipomoea, Jasmine) last barely a day and brilliant sunlight drains much of the colour from them, it’s hard to see great variety in the borders. But, look closely and you begin to see all sorts of attractive qualities.

For a start, there’s a certain variety in the contrasting colours and green tones of foliage, from the copper-red of the beefsteak plant (Acalypha wilkesiana) – below, top left, and right; to the delicate fresh green of Pelargonium Graveolens, also seen below:

There are also more flowers than you might realise at first glance, but you may have to look skywards or in out-of-the-way corners. Our lovely blue Ipomoea, for example, shyly emerges at the top back of the pergola (mea culpa: I placed it there!) which means it is best viewed from a bedroom window. But we also have lots of jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) tumbling down from the top of the hedge, and white bougainvillea contrasting wonderfully with the bright red of Hibisus chinensis standing tall at the back of the borders:

Sometimes, the detail of a cluster of flowers wins my heart, as with the delightful frangipani (Plumeria acuminata) whose tightly furled buds tinged with delicate pink contrast with the open flowers, shimmering white with yellow centres:

Frangipani

These sweetly perfumed, lovely trees, native to Central America, can grow to quite a size – maybe up to 7 or 8 metres. Ours are still quite young, but one in particular is generous with her blooms. The trees are very much part of the summer garden in the Middle East, and you see stands of them in El-Azhar Park. Another variety, P. rubra has spectacular deep red flowers, rather less scented.

There are other aspects of our garden to appreciate too: For one thing, the play of light and shade through the fruit trees illuminates the herbs (basil, rosemary) in the border as the sun goes down:

Back border sunlight thru trees I rather hope our young visitor looked back across the front garden as he was making his way out: we only have a narrow strip of land in front of the house, but it has been planted to present a vista in both directions. One way, you look past our Calliandra tree to the lawn opening out beyond; in the other direction, the eye is led onwards to the palm tree (currently bearing a decent crop of Zaghloul dates, on the way to ripening).

Symbols of love

Just now, our pinks and carnations (Dianthus spp.) are flowering well – quite an achievement considering that the midday temperature is hovering around 40C these days.

They were grown from seeds brought from London a few years ago and have thrived both in the borders and in pots. The potted ones are a great addition to the garden – I move them around every so often to create a new feel to a tired spot and they cheer me no end.

The flowers bring an eye-catching splash of colour to the edge of our beds, from soft pink through salmon-red to deep crimson. Some varieties have red flecks; others are pure white. All share a sweet scent, pretty rather than luxuriant, often with overtones of cloves, especially Dianthus caryophyllus. The Arabic name is qaranful – a word that means both carnation and clove.

Dianthus have been cultivated and treasured for millennia. The Greek dianthos means “flower of God” and in ancient Greece the blooms were woven into garlands for festive occasions. For two thousand years, the properties of carnations – especially D. chinensis – have been tapped in Chinese medicine to treat a whole range of conditions from high blood pressure to urinary tract infections. Used externally, this species can help in the treatment of eczema and skin inflammations.

And there’s another aspect to these multi-faceted plants: art. As a symbol of love, both divine and earthly,  the “flower of God” was often associated with the Virgin and child in the European tradition of painting; it also appeared in betrothal and marriage portraits. Further east, carnations were made to arc gracefully around Ottoman Iznik ceramics and to bloom gloriously in their textiles. Dianthus has been part of the fabric of our lives for centuries.

In the Jasmine garden we have a white flowering variety in the new herb bed (more on the expanding empire next post). This is a nod to Dianthus’ role in herbal medicine – although it isn’t the right variety – as well as a way to add interest to the bed.

Moving the white carnation

It may be somewhat wide of the mark, but I tend to think of Dianthus as a particularly English flower. Partial to alkaline soil, and thus happy in the chalk-lands of southeastern England, pinks and carnations seem to cope well with unpredictable weather, producing copious flowers for weeks on end and scenting the air on hot sunny days.

I’m never quite sure if I should cut them, however. As each new flower unfurls from a tight, grey-blue bud, full of youthful life and purity, I think it better to leave it be: too precious to cut.

Summer colour-fest

The title might be an over-estimation. Summer colours in our garden can be spectacular – the bougainvillea in the hedge, the May-flowering Jacaranda tree – but I wouldn’t say it is the best time of year for a garden in Egypt.

Now, however, as we gear up for the start of summer after yesterday’s “Spring Festival”*, we have some glorious colours on the pergola and in the herbaceous borders, in all shades from salmon pink to deep, luxuriant crimson:

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It is likely that the weather will continue hot and dry for the foreseeable future. That said, we can never be quite sure: A week ago, we had a heavy, overcast day, the light ominously grey tinged with orange, followed by  a night of spectacular lightning and thunder and a downpour that soaked everything.

The climbing rose (variety uncertain – no label when bought) is adorned with beautiful blooms, as you can see in the slideshow above. It climbs from the right of the pergola across the front where it is met by white jasmine (J. officinale) and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Behind, the poor Ipomoea (Morning Glory) ripped by an unfeeling gardener from its original position while still in the pot, tearing I don’t know how many precious roots, is clearly recovering well (below left).

While the honeysuckle on the pergola isn’t flowering yet,  it is well away along the green fence nearby, with lovely flowers scenting the air:

All these honeysuckle plants, and many more besides in the Jasmine Garden, originated as layered branches from the mother plant, bought from a nursery several years ago. Other “descendants” are to be found in a garden elsewhere in New Cairo, and on a balcony in Alexandria!

The bottle brush (Callistemon citrinus) is particularly lovely right now, the brilliant red stamens of its flowers tipped with yellow:

The bottlebrush originates in Australia and is not uncommon in Egypt, although it is something of a specialist shrub; there are specimens on sale at the Spring Flower Show this year.

Several other plants in our garden are of South African origin, including the plumbago (P. capensis), both white and blue – which generally flowers later in the summer – and the spectacular trailing African daisy or Osteospermum fruiticosum/ecklonis. 

These are excellent at filling in space; if anything, they are inclined to sprawl a little too much, as well as seed themselves everywhere (including in the lawn!), so they need to be controlled.

Another couple of border sprawlers are the rose geranium Pelargonium graveolens (or maybe capitatum) and tansy or Tanacetum. In truth, I am not sure which species of these two herbs I have in the herbaceous borders: I have moaned before about the lack of labels on plants in every nursery I know in Cairo (and the “top professionals” at the Spring Flower Show are not much better). But the plants are true winners in terms of filling in space, and lovely for long-lasting masses of flowers (tansy) and striking green foliage (geranium – her flowers are insignificant and don’t last long, but even so the bees appreciate them):

One odd thing about all these beautiful flowers is that none of them appeared in ancient Egyptian gardens, as far as we know. I wonder about tansy: quite apart from its many medicinal properties (e.g. anti-inflammatory and insecticidal), its name is derived from the Greek athanasia or immortal since it has preservative properties – ideal for mummification, one might think.

Lastly in my review of the early summer colours of our garden, one of my favourites: lavender (Lavandula). We have two seedlings of Lavandula spica from Italy to be planted out when they have grown a little more. They promise greenish leaves and aromatic deep purple flowers. Our two locally-sourced plants, with grey leaves and blue-ish spikes, are also flowering this year, a relatively rare occurrence in my experience of the plant in Egypt:

Lavender

 

Spring – almost

My Tao reading today is as uplifting as the day is beautiful:

Bird song flies unfettered

Over blue sky and green fields.

Once you feel Tao run,

Give way, give way.

“What is it like to feel Tao?” writer Deng Ming-Dao asks. “It is an effortless flowing, a sweeping momentum. It is like bird song soaring and gliding over a vast landscape.” He adds: “You can feel this in your life: Events will take on a perfect momentum, a glorious cadence.”

Just now, I can feel it all around in the vivid re-birth of nature. True, the orange tree (if that’s what it is!) and the oldest of our three limes have bunches of flower buds on their branches tantalisingly close to blooming, but not quite there yet. And true, the borders are showing bare patches of earth… But the promise is there, the energy is flowing upwards, the tender shoots of red-to-pink-to-light green leaves are bursting out on our roses and vines. This is what is meant by Tao in full flow, I think.

Above, soft vine leaves from rose to light green contrast with the darker green leaves of a rose – and the dark red shoots, as soft as they are colourful, it is sending up into the air. Below, a pear tree presents young leaves that feel as if they might melt when you touch them, still textured with a luminous down:

pear-2-3-17

As with the energy of nature, so with me: I feel “the nerves aglow” as the Tao commentary has it. Gone is the January torpor, I’m rolling up my sleeves and working on the herbaceous border after meandering through the back border last month. This means tearing myself away from the raised beds and pots of seedlings for a while, but the borders are equally satisfying and immensely rewarding once the shrubs have revived and put on their spring-into-summer growth spurt.

Today’s tasks include getting the gardener to help spread manure over the border (above right) after my weekend efforts to clear it of weeds and cut back plants where necessary, extracting and composting all the dead wood I could find. I haven’t finished the border yet, but it’s looking a lot better. As for the back bed (above left), it looks untidy once again as the mint has popped up all over the place, but the fruit trees have been pruned, weeded and fed, and I feel: well, satisfied.

bed-by-green-fence-3-17

My resolution to sow seeds of assorted flowers serendipitously along the borders is partially in hand, notably in the bed in front of the green fence separating kitchen and flower gardens. I cleared this out last week, added manure, and sowed morning glory at the back to climb up the fence, with cornflowers and snap dragons in front plus a few hyssop for the bees. I have no idea how well this little English flower garden will fare in Egypt’s heat – assuming success with germination.

It’s a somewhat messy bed, without much of an edge, but I figure that it could look both natural and attractive if it fills up with flowering plants that tumble over the scrappy grass in front. It has some taller herbs – rosemary and Lebanese thyme or zaattar, plus a geranium – so there’s no planting scheme here!

Next thing is to extend the sowings to the back border, perhaps with the inclusion of marigolds: Time to add a splash of colour to an otherwise dull bed. I’m following the Tao, carried along by the flow, as much in touch with nature in this little corner of New Cairo than anyone even in the deepest English countryside – and it’s wonderful!

via Daily Prompt: Vivid

A little diversion (or two!)

I haven’t been avoiding the garden, and I haven’t given up on blogging. But over the past three weeks I have been totally diverted – by the arrival of two beautiful grandsons. This means the plants were told to manage for themselves for a while, and pruning the bountiful lemon tree was left to the tender mercy of the garden assistant while I flew off to London to meet the newest, and most delightful, members of the family.

As I have written before, I don’t think plants mind being left to their own devices. In fact, I may have heard a (discreet) sigh of relief when I told them I was going away. The number 1 gardener had cleared out a lot of the herbaceous border, cleaned up around the fruit trees and cut rather more than I intended off the younger lime tree. We had spread some compost – but not fertiliser as that isn’t done until this month, February.

I was also beginning to harvest a great mix of salad leaves, but perhaps this was a bit ahead of the game given the tenderness of the young plants. Meanwhile, the herbs needed a rest: winter is not their favourite time of year. Back in early January, the number one performers looked like the broad beans and when I came back at the end of the month they had lived up to their promise:

broad-beans-2-17

It has been a pleasure to get down to work and do some “tillering”, pinching out the growing points of the main stems to let the laterals flourish. And, following advice in one of our gardening books, I put the shoots to good use by lightly stir-frying them with shredded Swiss chard from raised bed 1 and a touch of garlic, sprinkling with salt and a twist of black pepper, and adding the mix to a piping hot mushroom risotto: a heavenly dish!

Despite the cold winter nights other plants have surged ahead, and they are now flowering exuberantly. Number one in this respect is a very early borage:

early-borage-2-17

This is a herb that has acclimatised very well to our garden in Egypt: Descended from plants grown from seed bought in the UK, it now self-seeds all over the place. I can’t say we use it very much, though the leaves can be added to salads, but it is a great favourite with the bees and is therefore of high value. The specimen above has grown so vigorously that it is right through the netting over the bed, so I have removed the net to give the plant her freedom.

rocket-2-17Also making a break for it is the rocket; both self-seeded among the veg and planted in rows in raised beds 1 and 4 last autumn, it is now zooming upwards and blooming.

The flowers may look rather nondescript, but they go on for ages and, again, the bees love them. At this time of year, plants that provide food for our bees are too precious to remove. Nearby, the watercress is taking over.

Finally, over in the herbaceous border a welcome surprise: I must have missed a stem of my favourite rose when cutting the bushes back last month. On my return, there was one solitary, sweetly perfumed flower – so beautiful!

winter-rose-2-17