Sunday, August 21, 2011

Back to basics with pots in southern Spain                                                                                                                                         Extraordinary weather means relearning how to grow and what to grow when water is a precious commodity.  We experienced vast quantities of rain which we saved to large water butts in Spring. Now nothing - nada. Not even a dampness yet overnight.  

Our almond crop seems to have stood up to strange weather conditions but our olives this year look like being a poor crop.

Attempts to grow vegetables in the ground were pathetic. So I have pulled out a lot of plants and placed them in pots and hey presto! they are coming along nicely. 

Salads - thanks to an English friend who is an avid gardener with little time to waste - I have put in various lettuces in patio containers or in large pots under our trees to provide muted light and heat. So leaves to pick have included Barba dei Frati and Freckles. I have also made good use of seed tape including cucumber and dill -pretty as well. I have chili peppers from another friend in Texas.

Tomatoes are very late but again I have adapted the gro bag by buying 50 litre bags of good soil and cutting them open and providing some holes underneath for drainage. Again they are placed under trees.

Fruit - excellent crop of figs both black and green so I guess I will be making my own fig wine again this year. Drinking last year's crop at present. mmm!
Our grapes are lovely but I have to fight off the wasps which is a mixed blessing.  The grape vines are now also providing shelter on the west side of the house. I am also trying to grow a climbing pumpkin which is good at flowering but not so good at forming fruit. Maybe autumn will help....
Prickly pear crop is wonderful this year and despite what your eyes are taking in the tongue does get a hint of pear and never over sweet.

Aloe vera stock which we keep planting on will get used more this winter probably as soap with our olive oil and lavender.

I am still on a learning curve with our magnificent carob trees.  Collecting the seeds but....

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Beauty and the Beast and gardening in Austria

A wonderrful trip out in Carinthia to Burg Hoch Osterwitz during my recent visit to Austria reputed to have been the inspiration for the film  Beauty and the Beast'. One can see why.   The castle has 14 towers each with a different mechanism to pass through to reach the top. So woebetide any enemy trying to take this little baby!  This little burg sits in the middle of farming country and echoes of a working farm can be found all around the base. The heavly blossoming apple trees were also heavy with mistletoe something I see a lot of in this part of Austria.

The castle's barn or bauhof

I loved this pretty garden at the converted bauhof where there is a mix of flowers and vegetable growing and how about this -  diagonal planting.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Dutch Garden and its modern influences

When I think of the concept of dutch gardening I just recall tulips initially in my mind's eye.  My first visit to the Koekenhof Gardens was in 1959. It almost hurt one's eyes to see so much colour in a singe vista. I was just not used to it. Any interest in  history  and literature will have demonstrated this Dutch passion for tulips and its dramatic effects  on its economy over time.

'The Black Tulip' by Alexander Dumas and my love of art and ceramics,  tin glaze in particular, taught me about the design of dutch ceramic tulip vases - the larger the more ornate the better. Equally think of Dutch art.

Clearly the love of particular types of flowers, cultural and imperial  heritage will all feed into what are the crucial characteristics that define a national garden -  in this case the dutch garden. 

The dutch garden is known for its efficient use of space and generally dense planting.  Not surprising really as Holland is so densely populated and must live always with an eye on the forces of nature.

An example of the English concept of the Dutch garden  is easy to see from this  small extract from  an article by Mrs C W  Earle in 1887 found in the Virago Book of Women Gardeners: far the most enchanting plan for breaking up a to sink a small Dutch garden in the middle of it. The size of the Dutch garden must of course be in proportion to that of the lawn.  If the proportion cannot be kept,  it would be better to leave it alone. It should have a red brick wall all round it and be oblong or square..........the entrances to it are by brick steps one in the middle of each side......The height of the wall is about three feet from the ground on the outside and five feet on the inside.... pp46-47

However a visit to Holland and garden shows such as Chelsea will demonstrate that such formality does not necessarily define the more modern  Dutch garden. Piet Oudolf and the concept of prairie gardening  is now very influential  as designer, and nurseryman.  Grasses and the tall perrenials are key to his ideas providing height and structure but you will also see clipped hedges of the old Dutch garden.  I am also fascinated by his  design elements of the Lurie garden, the green roof of  the Millenium Centre in Chicago and will come back to this shortly in another blog.  (See references below)

I particularly warm to his ideas as his influences are nature, art, space and time which equally affect my attempts to make my garden in the semi desert. 

The long tradition with bulb planting means of course tulips, crocuses, calla lilies, anemones, narcissus - you still probably cant beat the 70 acres of the koekenhof.

The gardens of Oud Valkenberg Castle are probably a good bet for examples of herbariums, kitchen gardens the early dutch formal garden and so on.

References  . for the design of the walled garden in 2004

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Important Contributions from Spanish Botanists

Jose Celestino Mutis born in 1732 in Cadiz was the author of 'The Botany of Spain'.  He trained as a doctor of medicine and was also a botanist and trained in anatomy, physics, mathematics and astronomy.  His contribution as a botanist was extensive from his time on the South American west coast.  He was in extensive correspondence with Carl Linnaeus and his letters were brought together in a book by Sir James Edward Smith.

For a simple overview of his importance in the field look at

I have found 144 plants credited to him as author in the International Plant List and this quote:
'The herbaria of Mutis's collection are prudently estimated at from 20,00 to 24,000 specimens representing some 5000 distinct species.'

His studies into quinine for pharmacological use were extremely important in the fight against malaria. What an ambassador for Colombia he was! He died in Bogota, the Viceroy of New Granada now known as Colombia in 1808   see images of him and some of his drawings and statues in gardens of  Bogota  see

Hippolite Ruiz left Spain from Cadiz in 1777 for the southern parts of South America. principally Peru and Chile His journal allows us to the continuing relevance of what he saw and wrote for today's world in the face of continuing rape of naturally occurring crops for profit with little concern for its impact on the balance of nature and climate.  For instance he watched what was occurring to the harvesting of the quina tree (from which comes quinine - so vitally important in the treatment of malaria worldwide).  He was appalled at the exploitation and waste of the leftovers after that which had commercial value had been removed. Is this a comment applies to 21st century South America still, the Globe?
'Since the ignorance and greed have led to the production of much soft impure or burned extract with its effective activity much reduced and its medicinal properties changed. This abuse should receive the government's most    . that it can be corrected; otherwise this business so interesting for Spain and so important for mankind will be lost.'  Ruiz too died in Bogota in 1808. The quina tree is the National Tree of Equador and is one of the symbols representing   nature in the shield of Peru.

The Malaspina expedition of 1789 - 94

The Malaspina expedition of 1789 led by an Italian Alessandro Malaspina who worked for the Spanish Navy was carried out under a spanish commission and was a scientific expedition whose collected data surpassed that of James Cook's.  For complex political reasons Malaspina fell out of favour with the Spanish Government and the importance of the expedition was never fully given recognition by the world.

Antonio de Pineda, Luis Nee and Thadeus Haenke were the three scientists commissioned by Carlos IV for the expedition. They all made their contribution to the botany and gardens of Spain.

 But the fate of these men is another story or ten....
At least give them a thought if you ever get to the Real Jardin  Botanico in Madrid

Monday, May 10, 2010

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.....

Having managed the near impossible and got my rhubarb seed up to 2'' my recent visit to Carinthia again (see..The Austrian Garden) I found myself with a dilemma looking at something which had appeared over winter. Was it by any chance a self seeded rhubarb plant? Looks more like dock leaves.... no it can't be...! Well....... back to the research books and the history of rhubarb begins to unfold.

A resume

The first mention in any literature of rhubarb (genus rheum)is in China nearly 5000 years ago. when it is used there for its purgative properties. There is an interesting Rhubarb Compendium elsewhere which gives some examples of its 'miracle powers" as medicine. However the same article gives two bits of more modern information.
The first is the recorded planting of rhubarb was in Italy in 1608 and then more generally in the rest of Europe about 30 years later.
The second is in 1778 where rhubarb now has taken on a new function of as for pie fillings.

It seems to have got to Maine North America around 1800 where a grower was known to be selling plants to other gardeners. has some nicely illustrated types of rhubarbs - Turkey, English and Monk's. But it is the synonyms of the English rhubarb where the light bulb begins to flicker in our heads....

Synonyms: Garden rhubarb, Bastard Rhubarb ans Sweet Round leaved Dock.

Reading on, later we find that the English rhubarb has red veins .and further on in the Culpeper's description for Monks rhubarb it is referred to a s a dock used for its purgative powers. So have we come full circle? Here is some information on DOCKS.

''The name Dock is applied to a widespread tribe of broad-leaved wayside weeds, having roots possessing astringent qualities united in some with a cathartic principle, rendering them valuable as substitutes for Rhubarb, a plant of the same family.'' from

So still I dont know for sure what is growing in her garden as it is red veined but with unusual spade like leaves but I do know a lot more about nrhubarb.

I have discovered

a cordial called ZUCCA made from rhubarb roots and used as a basis for cocktails

the French grow it as a pot herb

At shows the are seen in the vegetable section not the fruit section 

 The chinese at the time of the Opium Wars were more worried about their rhubarb commodity being taken over by the british merchant foreigners

A health problem can come from oxalic acid contained within rhubarb - could cause kidney stones a most horrible illness

A quite extraordinary plant then, which I was addicted to whilst carrying my first child - the owner of said garden.  and since this is meant to have a literary value value as well as a gardening value here is a definition of 'rhubarb, rhubarb...'

  1. (italbrac, theatre or film) (italbrac, mainly UK) Background noise of several "conversations", none of which are decipherable since actually all the actors are only repeating the word rhubarb (chosen because it contains no very sharp or recognisable phonemes) or other words with similar attributes. In UK use there is no implication that the "conversations" are intended to be angry, though they may be

For background information of all sorts:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Spring 2010 - after a poor winter

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The winter's unpredictability severely damaged much of my new plantings of last year. I suppose for every three new plants one has gone. Sometimes miracles occur so I let stuff stay for a year before pulling out completely. I have done very little writing as I've undergone many hospital tests in Spain. So I have rather reflected the garden - sad and drab. I also corrupted my pc which was totally cleared out and of course I had only backed up some of my stuff - why do we always think it wont ever happen?

Finally Spring has arrived rather late but benefitting from record breaking amounts of rain and of course flooding.

On 7th April the bee eaters arrived back and I spotted a little stonechat at the rear of the house. A hoopoe arrived for a brief stopover. Work done on the vegetable beds last year are showing signs of paying off as beans, spinach, melons and my present from a Texan friend of various peppers and chillies show their heads above soil.

The most exciting of all, I bought and planted four bare soil roses from Peter Beales which I worried for when we had another frost but they are doing very very well. In fact I think it is all the roses which have benefitted from extreme weather here. In due course I will photograph.... We have just been given a cherry tree which is worrying me a little about where to place it. My apple tree has failed I think but there just maybe a major victory over rhubarb production - small seedlings which look like miniature rhubarb sticks.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gilbert White - A voice from the past

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia contributor

Gilbert White's Contribution to Gardens -

He was born in Selborne, Hampshire, England in 1720. Another phenologist and recorder of nature he is so worth reading at regular intervals. His diaries on natural history, ecology, landscaping, and also the relationship between plants and animals have been pioneering documents because of his extraordinary capacity for observation and recording.

He also worked with William Markwick (born 1739) on identifying and cataloguing many birds of the area. so between them their contribution has been immense.

So far the greatest jewel I have discovered on the internet in respect of this subject ( and something I will pursue further) is the Gutenberg Project which provides a FREE downloadable e-text of “The Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White based on a series of letters mainly to Thomas Pennant, the top zoologist at this time..Nothing can beat the original text for a sense of time and place and a tool to anchor us in our present day lives to the not so far away “Then” . Consider his description of the effects of the weather in 1780 for instance in his first letter when he describes a severe hot summer and a preceding dry spring and winter when the ponds dried and the wells failed... so familiar to my ears and eyes in this year 2009.... the fall of a huge important oak tree brought down in a big storm and attempts to recover it.

The wikipedia entry from Gilbert White reminded me of this comment which we should forget at our peril. I know I wish my garden had some of these (not so) common earthworms:

"............Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm [...] worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them..."

Links In-the-footsteps-of-gilbert-white-at-selborne-420525

here is quite a useful reference from AA (Automobile Association) if you would like to walk “In the footsteps of Gilbert White” about 5 kilometers long and walkable with dogs on leads which has got to be a plus.