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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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!

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Herbaceous border hang-up

Our herbaceous borders need attention. The good news is that the gardening assistant has at last finished cutting the hedge – a monumental task, given the rapid growth and woodiness of Ficus nitida (Indian laurel). The not so good news is that the borders have become overgrown and full of bugs.

Of course, you might expect to have thriving wildlife if you garden the natural way. I’m happy to meet praying mantis, beetles, woodlice and – above all – earthworms when I garden. But I’m not so sure about snails, and I can’t bear cockroaches of which we have the burrowing sort in the garden, small, dark and more rounded than the “domestic” species.

So far, the front section of the border has been cleaned and the canna, roses, plumbago and jasmine cut down (above right). Plants in the rear section of the border now have to be cut back, notably the white plumbago which has spread all over, and the roses.

It has been a poor year for roses: Ours started off strong, bloomed beautifully in the spring and then went downhill all the way. After the first flowering they produced what looked like suckers (although not from the base of the plants), with smaller flowers and straggling and tatty growth, then suffered major infestations of mealy bugs which spread elsewhere; or maybe hit the roses from elsewhere, I’m not sure.

 

Come November, we had some unexpected blooms, for example from the bottlebrush tree (Callistemon citrinus). Most faithful of all through the year are my beloved hibiscus. Pink, red, orange or yellow, single or double, they keep flowering – reminders of the beauty of nature through sunny days and dark times alike.

In truth, I think the main issue with our borders is that the planning and planting haven’t quite worked. We placed climbing bougainvillea, honeysuckle and jasmines along with hibiscus at the back. In front of them are bush jasmines, roses and plumbago. Forward in the beds are the smaller plants – osteospermum, dianthus, daisies, aeoniums, with space for some annuals, especially petunias, in the spring. There are two patches of cannas, with their glamorous spikes of bright red and orange flowers. Of these, one has spread like topsy, the flowers shrinking in size commensurate with the spread of the plants!

It seems I planted too densely. It’s a common error among gardeners, a failure to imagine quite how large plants may grow and how much they can spread. Plus the honeysuckle quickly gets out of control while the plumbago spreads all over, suffering the same pest attack as the roses. It’s a horror story in the section nearest the pergola.

The pergola is an ongoing case-study in overambitious planting: jasmine and honeysuckle, a climbing rose and to top it all off Ipomoea with its spectacular blue flowers. If anyone asked me what my plan was when I put them there, I wouldn’t be able to answer coherently. You will get the drift from the image below at right: how prolifically jasmine can expand!

Today, the gardener stripped much of the greenery from around the structure, lopped the Ficus trees, and – sadly – trimmed the Ipomoea so all the blue has disappeared for now (above, left).

Finally, I should end with our olive tree. Last winter, we planted a new one, to replace one that never bore fruit. We are looking after it, and it appears to be thriving. A small gesture, I know, but worth making.

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Olive sapling, planted early in 2016

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.

Lavender blues

There’s a strange and unexpected lack of colour in the garden. Normally, we would have  some kind of a show of roses, but not so this summer, and I’ve heard other people comment on the shabby roses in their gardens too. It seems to be a bad year.

When we lived in the Arabian Gulf, there were always colourful vincas (Catharanthus rosea) to fall back on, thriving in summer with glossy green leaves and flowers from white to purple-red providing splashes of colour all around. We had several in the garden here in New Cairo, but most of them have disappeared.

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Lavender is a good border plant for well-drained and poor soil, and one of my favourites. But our record has been patchy. Positioned in full sun in light soil, the plants have tended to do well for a few months and then to die off. Others were left in pots, which meant I could move them about, but they didn’t do much better. The latest trial, two plants bought from the Spring Flower Show at El-Urman Gardens, identity unknown as there were no labels, are doing marginally better. I’ve re-potted them and taken them up to the top balcony. No sign of any flowers – lavenders very rarely produce any in my experience in Egypt – but the leaves are an attractive silvery-green colour and wonderfully aromatic. That’s a lot to be grateful for.

 

Then we have the jasmines. Best of all is the “yasmeen balady”, J. officinale,  with its long trailing stems and bursts of delicate pink buds opening to starry white flowers. Climbing above the Jasmine Gate and over the pergola, and cascading down the full height of the hedge in several places, it spreads a delicious perfume around the garden, especially at sunset. Every day, the lawn is sprinkled with the star dust of fallen blooms – so beautiful!

Other species, such as J. sambac or Arabian jasmine, are more compact shrubs bearing single or double white blooms that are even more intensely perfumed.  We have them all around the garden. Whenever I catch their rich scent, I’m reminded of days gone by when flower sellers used to dart among the traffic in Cairo’s busiest streets carrying necklaces of the fresh flowers for sale.

There’s another (query) jasmine in a pot in the front garden, also sourced from El-Urman Gardens, identity unknown. It bore jasmine-like flowers earlier in the summer… it needs to climb, but haven’t found a spot for it yet.

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However, there are still bright flashes of colour here and there. As you know, the hibiscus are among my great favourites and we have them in red, pink (including doubles), orange and yellow. There are also two groups of cannas, C. indica, one with brilliant red, and one with flaming orange, spikes, and elegant, variegated leaves. They make quite a show.

The great thing about the cannas is their ability to put on the show right at the back of the border, against the dark green of the Indian laurels (Ficus nitida). It’s not a position much accepted by other plants, which tend to dislike having their back to a wall of laurels, but these are happy to fill in!

With plumbago doing a great job of filling in the middle, swamping everything else and even rising to my sort of height by climbing in among the hibiscus, it’s the front of the herbaceous borders that is proving most tricky to fill in. Dianthus are not doing well (lack of water, perhaps, or poor soil conditions); the dwarf roses flower intermittently only; smaller bedding plants such as pansies and petunias do not survive the summer heat.

To remedy the situation, we called at a nursery in the densely built-up and – from a gardener’s perspective – unpromising suburb of Madinat Nasr recently and stocked up on more of the vinca plants. Below left is one of the survivors from our existing stock; next to it, the new intake, to be transplanted to the border. Popularly known as Madagascar periwinkles, the plants are great fillers, if disappointingly without scent. But, it seems that at this time of the year, either we have colour and no scent, or we have scent and no colour…

Snacking on hibiscus

I was pottering – purposefully, of course – in the garden at sunset yesterday, taking photos of some gorgeous hibiscus, and jasmine tumbling down the pergola, when I happened upon two visitors quietly snacking in the herbaceous border.

First I saw one grasshopper – then a second emerged. I had no idea they are partial to flowers, but as I watched they munched away on a bright yellow hibiscus bloom for all the world as if this was their usual pick-me-up.

As the flowers only last for a day before wilting into frail, papery tubes, I thought I’d leave them to it.You will see the visitors in the photos below – I wish I could load the video, but I don’t have the WordPress Premium Plan so it’s barred.

We share our garden with all sorts of insect life: ants, woodlice, beetles, praying mantis, butterflies, moths, bees and, yes, cockroaches of the burrowing kind. So I don’t have a problem if a grasshopper chooses to add a frilly edge to a hibiscus flower, as long as it doesn’t destroy them all.

That, of course, could happen if it got together with a lot of other hoppers and turned into a swarm. But two seemed a tolerable number.

In fact, I rather admired their choice of snack: We share a taste for hibiscus. On hot summer days, there are few more refreshing drinks than a cold glass of beautiful, deep red karkaday, served sweetened (oh, for sure, there may be tons of sugar in that glass!) and on ice.

Made from hibiscus, karkaday might be termed Egypt’s national drink in summertime, although many would say that ice-cold ‘assab or sugar cane juice runs it a close second.

Whether you are luxuriating on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan – a nostalgic hideaway much favoured by everyone from Agatha Christie to Jean-Paul Belmondo – or simply picking up a glass at a street stall in downtown Cairo, karkaday is a perfect antidote to the parching heat and dust of Egypt from May through September.

But this is not the same plant as the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that my friends were chomping. The drink is made from H. sabdariffa, a different species classified as a herb, that is particularly fine sourced from southern Egypt (Sayeed) and especially from the area around Aswan.

One summer, we filled half a raised bed with H. sabdariffa, thanks to the efforts of our first Engineer who recommended it as a summer crop for harvesting in the early autumn, and thus a useful plant to grow when many others cannot survive in the heat.

Gangly and unstable, the plants grew to about 1.5 metres and then fell about all over the place. They also attracted a ton of mealy bugs which clung resolutely to the stems of the flowers. These small, creamy blooms with deep purple centres, were followed by seed pods surrounded by stiff, dark red calyces. Harvesting meant collecting the calyces, a tortuous process that stains the fingers dark red, and then drying them in the sun.

Making up the drink is best done by simply soaking a handful of the calyces in a small jug of cold water for up to 12 hours, then straining and adding sugar, definitely to taste. It is often too sweet for me; I prefer to underplay the sugar, adding a little extra according to individual taste when serving – on ice, of course.

As for health benefits, these are many and varied, ranging from a booster dose of vitamin C to a number of anti-oxidants. The jury seems to be out concerning its anti-hypertensive properties, but I can vouch for its efficacy:

A few months ago, I saw a physician for follow-up after a bad bout of bronchitis. As usual, he checked my blood pressure and found it to be extraordinarily low, even for me (my bp has never been high, luckily) – something like 90/60. Taken aback, the only possible cause we could think of was a glass of karkaday I had drunk just before leaving the house. Then came his advice: “Not a problem,” he told us, and then – turning to my husband: “No need to do anything, just leave her alone!”

So, let’s raise a glass of beautiful, dark red, health-giving karkaday to the summer in Egypt:  Cheers!

 

Cheers