“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:


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:



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:


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.


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:


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:


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!



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.


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.