Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve bouquet from the garden

Just a short post to wish everyone

Happy New Year and all the best for 2010

We'll be spending the evening at a friend's house, and instead of buying flowers I decided to go out to the garden and see what I could find. By combining seed heads, the tassels of the tiger grass, and some leaves that are still green in this mild winter, here's what I produced (click to enlarge).

Here's another photo. I'm still experimenting with photographing flowers indoors, and any tips would be appreciated!

All the best for 2010 - Barbara

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lantana and butterfly bush (Buddleia) - invasive species everywhere?

As do I'm sure many gardeners, I've been spending some time in these winter months perusing catalogs and rethinking my garden design. As part of the potager I'm planning in our allotment, I've reserved one of the four quadrants as a butterfly and bee garden, but am now having second thoughts about two of the shrubs I wanted to have in it.

For years we've had lantanas in mini tree form on the roof patio of our city apartment, see below,

and I was appalled to read one day that they have been outlawed in some countries as invasive plants. Here's a link to an article about the havoc they are wreaking in various places. I had really wanted a lantana because they bloom tirelessly throughout the summer and are a wonderful magnet for bumble bees, bees and butterflies, including the intriguing hawk moth (picture taken from Wikipedia, see here).

 Link to Creative Commons licensing agreement which applies to this photo.

A hawk moth - rather unusual in our zone and with an uncanny resemblance to a humming bird - regularly visited the lantana (and the petunias) at about 4 p.m. all summer, delighting us everyday. The patio literally buzzes with activity due to this plant.

We are in hardiness zone 7, and the lantanas do not survive the winter outside, so I figure they don't pose that much of a danger here. I either take them inside starting in late November or purchase a new one in the spring.

The other shrub I wanted was of course the butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, and in fact I've already purchased and planted a dwarf species, "Buddleia Flower Power".

Imagine my dismay on discovering that this shrub, too, is considered an invasive species in some places and is prohibited, for example, in Oregon. And it's on the black list of invasive species in Switzerland, right next door. In Germany there seems to be a border between areas where it survives easily (and I'm in that area) and areas to the East with a more continental climate, where it doesn't. But no official measures are being taken, and in fact, summer lilacs (as they are often called here), are very popular and widespread. I read that one of the reasons it became popular is that it could survive even on the postwar rubble of many Germany cities. But it is causing the German Railroad trouble, since it proliferates along embankments.

While researching I discovered that several other garden favorites here in central Europe are also considered invasive, including mahonia, Himalayan balsam (a kind of impatience), Japanese honeysuckle, and many others.

So I'd be interested to hear what all you gardening experts out there, especially at Blotanical, think about this. Am I violating a basic principal of good organic gardening by planting these shrubs in my garden? It's somehow hard to imagine that shrubs that are so obviously appealing to native fauna could be harmful.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Handy gift for gardeners with pruning phobia

For my birthday I got several gardening-related gifts, including this very handy boxed set of pruning instructions (in German).

The box contains 32 laminated reference cards on flowering shrubs and 8 cards on fruit trees and bushes, covering just about everything I have in my garden. Each card has general care and pruning instructions and clear illustrations. It also includes a neck strap to attach the cards to for ready reference, or alternatively a strap for (I presume) hanging them on a nearby twig while pruning. An accompanying booklet contains handy calendars, tables and other general information on pruning and pruning tools.
I don't know about the rest of you gardeners, but pruning has always intimidated me. Armed with these clear and explicit instructions I will now face my trees and bushes with more confidence - although my septuagenarian neighbors in the garden colony will probably be amused. 

The set's in German and geared towards what grows in a typical German garden, and I recommend it. I'd love to hear any tips for other easy reference books on pruning.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas market in Mannheim's art nouveau gardens

Mannheim, where I live, has an annual Christmas market, as do many German towns and cities. What makes it special and slightly relates it to gardening is the fact that it takes place in what Mannheim itself touts as Germany's largest art nouveau (Jugendstil) complex, including Mannheim's landmark, the art nouveau water tower; a large cascading fountain; the Rosengarten, Mannheim's concert hall; and very beautiful gardens with trellised passageways, art nouveau lamps and sculptures.

The Christmas market is grouped around the water tower, located at the end of Mannheim's main shopping pedestrian area. It's a favorite spot for shoppers to stop for a glass of mulled wine (Glühwein), a bratwurst, or to purchase baubles for the Christmas tree and other gift items.

Here you can see the Rosengarten concert hall in the background with some of the trellised walkways, art nouveau lamps and the cascading fountain (now empty in winter) in the foreground (click to enlarge).

In the summer there are of course many flower borders to admire. To the left of this shot is the water tower surrounded by the Christmas market.

Unfortunately I chopped off the statue of Amphitrite, Poseidon's consort, on the top. Here's another shot showing that. If you click to enlarge, you can barely see that there are even still some blooming pansies in the foreground, despite it being mid-December.

The next photo, taken later in the evening, gives an impression of the market around the now lit-up water tower.

Because I don't have any pretty flowers in this post, instead here are two pretty girls (my daughter and her best friend) out Christmas shopping in Mannheim.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Another inspiration from fellow bloggers: An advent wreath from the garden

Several other Blotanists have posted beautiful pictures of the advent wreaths they've made from garden offerings, including Diana at Elephant's Eye with her Southern Advent Wreath, and College Gardener's Happy First Advent Sunday post. College Gardener has mentioned another German custom dear to my heart, as it is named after St. Barbara: the custom of cutting branches of flowering shrubs and trees on December 4th and putting them in a vase in a warm room so that they bloom by Christmas. Take a look at her interesting post on the custom of Barbaratag. I will also be in my garden tomorrow cutting forsythia and apple twigs to this purpose.

Inspired to find something in my mostly dormant garden that I could use for a traditional German advent wreath with four candles, I took inventory and came up with two candidates. First a conifer that I don't really like and I've always thought out of place in the garden, see below. When I cut some branches I discovered, however, that it has very soft fragrant needles, so perfect. (Please click to enlarge any photo.)

Second, I decided to use some twigs of the beautiful variegated boxwood that stands like a sentinel at the entrance to the garden, next to the espalier pears.

I soon discovered that fashioning a wreath out of boxwood, one of the traditional evergreen plants to do this with, is not that easy. But by using a dish to contain the whole thing I managed to get results I like. For the second photo I lit all four candles, although traditionally you light one for each advent Sunday. This year all four will be lit on December 20.

Whether it's winter or summer where you live, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish you a peaceful approach to the end of the year.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Awed by Blotanical

I just read an interesting post by Deborah of Deb's garden that reflected some of my own experiences in starting a garden blog and discovering Blotanical.

During my childhood in the fifties and sixties in suburban Minnesota, my mother initially had some apple trees and a small vegetable plot I helped out in. Such plots slowly disappeared in our suburb, and my father's attitude of "why go to all that work if you can buy everything conveniently frozen" was probably typical for the time. Soon our suburb looked like others all over the country: expanses of green lawn with a few solitary trees and some shrubs in a retaining wall in front of the entrance.

Years later I ended up making my life in Germany, where vegetable and flower gardening are widespread. Here I became reacquainted with the custom of kitchen gardens - still very much alive all over Europe. Many people own a garden plot somewhere, not necessarily at their dwelling, sometimes located in organized garden colonies (known in Britain as allotments, in Germany as Kleingärten or Schrebergärten). If you bring up the topic of gardening here, the most unlikely people will start talking shop with you about onions and tomatoes, roses and peonies.

About to retire and inspired by the garden culture surrounding me, I acquired an allotment garden last summer. In previous phases of life with a demanding job, three children, a long commute, etc., there had been no room for anything like gardening. My new found passion for gardening soon led to a desire to document it and share what I was doing with friends and family. Since I knew something about the internet and computers from years of using them at work, a blog seemed a logical choice.

While browsing the internet for similar gardening blogs, I not only discovered that I was by no means the first to come up with this idea, but that there was a huge network of garden blogs called Blotanical out there, in which hundreds (or maybe even a thousand?) garden blogs have found a platform for exchanging information, getting acquainted, and reading and commenting on each other's blogs.

If you join Blotanical, you get your own "plot" where you can point to your blog, name other bloggers you like (known as "faving" a blog), award points to blog posts you've liked (known as "picking" a post), send messages to other members, search their huge base of blogs in various ways including map-based, and just generally move around in a world of friendly gardeners.

Blotanical has a system of awarding points that can eventually lead to a higher status (from "Patron Blotanist" up to "Guru Blotanist"), which in turn gives you more participation privileges in the Blotanical world.

One thing I haven't been able to find on the Blotanical website, though, is background on how it started and who maintains it. It would be nice if there was an "about" or "mission" tab on the homepage. I know there's someone named Stuart Robinson from Australia who is apparently the webmaster in addition to running his own gardening blog. Thanks to him and whoever else is responsible in the background, many bloggers like me have found a community of the like-minded that is always fun to visit and where people are always supportive and friendly. Do take a look if you're interested in gardening or garden blogging. You will discover gardens on every tillable continent on earth.

Proud of getting my simple blog up and running at all, I was, however, somewhat daunted by the other bloggers at Blotanical. There are LOTS of bloggers there who:
  • write excellently, some are even professional writers
  • must be IT specialists on the side, since their blogs are technically perfect
  • take gorgeous photos, have tasteful attractive layout
  • are master gardeners, landscape planners, or garden architects
  • even if hobby gardeners, are highly skilled and knowledgeable
  • manage to hold down jobs; maintain imaginative, labor-intensive gardens; and write frequent blog posts
  • keep up communication with and regularly read the blogs of many other bloggers.
I've found much to admire there. So although I may never make it to Guru Blotanist, I will continue to enjoy the Blotanical community and have already revised my fixed notion that Americans have lawns, but not gardens.

And because there was no photo in this post, here's one of some appealing mushrooms I found in our garden one damp fall morning last week (please click to enlarge). I had wanted to mow that patch of grass, but couldn't bring myself to!

Monday, November 23, 2009

What could be worse than slugs? Bean weevils!

Now that fall is upon us and the garden is pretty much ready for winter, I decided to tackle our large harvest of dried wax beans in order to remove the dried beans from the seed casings. We acquired the allotment garden at the end of July, and the large plot of wax bush beans our predecessors had planted were already overripe and no longer edible as green beans. So upon the advice of a dear elderly experienced gardener, I left the beans on the plants until they were thoroughly dry. She had said that after harvesting I should spread them on newspaper to further dry, up to the point where the pods were stiff and crackling. So that's what I did.

Then one dreary evening (it's already dark here in Germany by 5 p.m.) I settled in and began to remove the seeds.

The beans were quite pretty, shiny white with black markings. Still, my husband suggested we cook up a batch as bean soup to see if they really tasted good as dried beans before shelling the whole two bucketfuls. 

When I washed a bowlful, I noticed an insect or two rising to the surface of the water without thinking much of it. After all they were organically grown beans from the garden. But after I had soaked them for a while and they had somewhat expanded in size, I noticed that every single bean seemed to have a small round hole in it. I took one out, cut it open, and inside there was a tiny live beetle! It turned out there was a beetle in every single bean! Not a worm - a beetle. Being soaked for a few hours hadn't phased them. Horrified, I dumped the entire lot onto the compost without thinking to grab my camera and get a photo.

After researching on the internet I discovered that they must have been bean weevils. I found a great picture  of them on a Danish website by searching for the Latin name Callosobruchus maculatusAfter discovering that the website had German and English versions, it turned out to be a website run by people who have a mail order business for poisonous dart frogs, geckos, and other terrarium animals they breed themselves. So why do they have such a professional photo of bean weevils on their site?? Because they raise them, too, as food for the frogs! Here's the picture, at a later stage than my beans were:

The creatures have an interesting life cycle, spending almost their entire life inside of the bean they call home. They crawl out to mate and lay eggs on the beans, and the hatched larva then chew their way in where they pupate. So will we now have trouble growing beans without using insecticides, which we are determined not to do?

 If anyone has advice on this I'd be grateful. I've been trying to psych myself into liking our slugs (see my post on snail whispering), but I don't think I can get close to a bean weevil. Maybe I'll get in touch with those Danes about a business proposition!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Proud to be an Honest Scrap

After being offline for a while I am proud to report that I have been awarded the title "Honest Scrap" by a fellow garden blogger, Deborah at Kilbourne Grove (do look at her great Green Theatre blog). I am delighted and thank Deborah for this distinction! The admiration is mutual.
Although despite intensive googling I haven't been able to discover exactly what this award means or where it came from, it does include some clear duties that I will gladly comply with. Some might think that Duty 4 has some similarity to chain letters, but it doesn't promise you true love or ten thousand postcards, and instead may make you aware of or even connect you up with some bloggers you weren't familiar with before.

Here are the duties:

Duty 1: Brag about the award (which I'm hopefully fulfilling by writing this blog post on it.
Duty 2: Link back to Deborah (see above and below)
Duty 3: Write ten honest things about yourself (see below)
Duty 4: Pass on the award to 7 fellow bloggers you admire.

So here goes. Duty 3, ten things about me:
  1. I have curly hair which was the bane of my youth and which I haven't grown to accept until middle age. My teenage daughter (also curly) has the great fortune to have been born in the age of electric hair flatteners, so needn't resort to the ironing board, as I used to.
  2. I sometimes wish I had become an elementary school teacher.
  3. Gardening has turned out to be a completely unexpected passion of mine.
  4. For about ten years I've had an outline for a murder mystery on my PC. Any day now...
  5. I never miss the Sunday night crime series on German TV ("Tatort").
  6. A few years ago I got interested in my family's genealogy and discovered that some of my forebears may have been Mennonites who fled Europe in the 17th century for Pennsylvania.
  7. My favorite vacation activity is doing long-distance cycling along Germany's many river routes (except now I have to stay home and tend my garden, see #3).
  8. I have two sisters who live in San Francisco.
  9. I've gone jogging with the same three women every Saturday for 18 years.
  10. I am also an avid figure skating fan. Would anyone like to go to the European Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, with me in January?
And now for Duty 4, passing on the award. This award has been spreading like wildfire, and not surprisingly, just about every garden blogger I'd like to give it to has already been awarded it! But I'll name them anyhow. Since I don't know that many bloggers, this list is going to have to grow with time.  I'll start with these wonderful blogs:
  1. Green Theatre, Deborah's gardening blog about Kilbourne Grove. There aren't that many of us out there that love clear, geometrical shapes and straight lines in their gardens!
  2. Lou Murray's Green World. I've been enjoying this garden blog from a gardener in Southern California, far away both in kilometers and in terms of gardening conditions from where I am - but that's what makes the web so wonderful.
  3. Elephant's Eye. A South African blog I've recently discovered with gorgeous photos.
  4. Autumn Belle at My Nice Garden. Another blog I've become familiar with through Blotanical, a website where you can find all of these blogs and hundreds more, united by a common love of gardening.
  5. Garden of Eaden,  Simon's very informative website with an ecological slant.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Trip to Vienna, a few gardens

Just back from a long weekend in Vienna, I have at least found a few garden-related things to post, despite the cold, damp November weather there.

The first place we visited was Belvedere Castle, which possesses a vast formal garden with floral patterns formed only by boxwood, grass, and colored gravel. The view from ground level is not very spectacular (see above, click any photo to enlarge), but the view that the prince had from his upstairs chambers reveals more.

Way down at the other end of the gardens, beyond the high-hedged mazes and around to the side of the Lower Belvedere, we discovered another formal garden (with some modern sculptures) enclosed by a wall covered by vines in breathtaking fall colors, I think Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata Veitchii).

Speaking of Boston Ivy, we also encountered some growing from a small window planter - had never seen that before!

More on the level of my own modest boxwood hedging efforts (see my post), I was delighted to discover the garden in the back of the last house that Haydn lived in, from 1797 until his death in 1808. It's easy to imagine that it still looks the way it did back in Haydn's day. You can rent an audiophone and listen to "Die Schöpfung" while sitting on a bench in this garden. This last great work of his was composed in this house. I highly recommend a visit there if you're interested in Haydn and life in Vienna in his day.

We also visited the Vienna Central Cemetery, the second largest in all of Europe and resting place of Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert and many other inhabitants of that city, great and humble. The entire cemetery is laid out like a formal, symmetrical garden, with the Art Nouveau chapel and the mausoleum of all of Austria's presidents as centerpiece.

It's a beautiful place. I found the old Jewish section the most beautiful of all, and the fall colors made a wonderful backdrop to the lushly overgrown gravestones.

OK, this is completely off-topic, but I can't resist. Instead of posting pictures of any of the usual touristy things to do in Vienna, here are two pictures of the most beautiful public lavatories I've ever encountered. They are underground in the area between St. Stephen's Cathedral and the Hofburg, with the kind of stairs leading down to them that would not be confidence-inspiring in most European cities. But I braved it, to discover highly polished wood, beautiful tiling, and for each guest an immaculate personal booth with toilet, sink, soap and towels. There was an attendant on duty, and the whole thing cost 50 cents. I sent my husband down to the men's - same story.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Queen of England

After debating a long time about whether or not to purchase an arch and plant a climbing rose at the entrance to my herb garden, I decided against it because of too many other things to do right now, and wait till next year.

BUT today while walking by the local discount drugstore, I saw they had a table of various perennials for sale out on the sidewalk at incredibly cheap prices (€1.50 each for roses, blackberries, clematis, currants, raspberries, and several other varieties) and although I've made a point of buying all my plants and bulbs at quality nurseries up till now, just couldn't resist buying a climbing rose, figuring I had nothing to lose at that price.

So I am now the owner of a so-called "Queen of England" climbing rose. I couldn't wait to get home and research it. Upon perusing online rose forums, it turned out that this and other roses are being or have been sold in the past at many discount grocery and drugstores here, including Aldi, Schlecker, Lidl, and Plus. And there were lots of reports about people buying these cheap discount roses only to be surprised in the spring at finding they'd planted a white ground cover rose rather than the pictured pink climbing rose!

The other discovery I made was that "Queen of England" is not really a recognized name. The correct name is probably "Queen Elizabeth", a famous and well-established rose, but not usually a climbing rose. There does seem to be a climbing version, though.

The package is a little puzzling since there's no indication of country of origin. The information on the package is given in 9 languages. I wonder where thousands of this cultivar were produced for simultaneous sale at hundreds of discount outlets!

So I plan to do what one forum participant recommended: plant the rose in a container and see what comes up before deciding where to put it in the garden.

In the course of trying to find out about this rose, I discovered a truly wonderful website called which offers information on thousands of roses, peonies and clematis. It was here that I found the definitive information on what I've probably purchased.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lots of bulbs!

Now that winter is setting in, it's a good time to sit down and do some planning for the spring, but also to get some perennials and bulbs planted before it's too late.

I'm sure I've overdone it on the bulbs, but they're so hard to resist. Here are some of the ones I've bought and planted up till now: 10 pink mini waterperry daffodils, 10 pink trumpet daffodils, 6 rainbow parrot tulips, 6 white estafette crispa tulips, 6 white tulips with pink rims, 8 pale yellow erlicheer daffodils, 25 mixed freesias, 8 brown sugar tulips, 8 poet's daffodils, 3 giant alliums, and a mixed collection of 60 grape hyacinths and crocuses to plant in the lawn.

To plant them I first loosened the earth and then used a handy device my predecessors had left behind: a bulb planter. It digs the hole, retaining the earth, you put the bulb in, and then you press the handle together and the earth falls back down onto the bulb. I suppose all experienced gardeners are aware of these things, but I wasn't. Pretty nifty.

While transplanting things and clearing out the space for my planned farmer's garden, I've discovered a lot of already present bulbs, some already multiplied into large clusters of bulbs, but have no idea what they are. So I've separated and replanted many of these, too. My experienced gardener neighbor was able to easily identify which ones were narcissuses (i.e. daffodils or jonquils), and which ones were probably tulips. One sign that they are daffodils is that voles leave them alone, so the bulbs are perfectly intact.

In the spring I'll post pictures as the bulbs all bloom.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Designing a traditional herb garden (aka potager garden, kitchen garden, Bauerngarten, cottage garden, etc.)

My son Martin turning the compost (left), me planting the boxwood hedge (right) (click to enlarge)

My biggest project in the new garden is to plant a geometrical herb garden, i.e. an ornamental kitchen garden. There are many terms for this type of garden, or rather there are many types of traditional gardens in various countries which possess some of the elements of what I want to do: the traditional German Bauerngarten, the French potager garden, English cottage gardens or border gardens, French formal gardens, and on a larger scale the herb gardens still to be found in Europe's monasteries, cloisters and manor houses.

In many of these traditions, there's an emphasis on combining utilitarian vegetables and herbs with the beauty of flowering plants, and the design usually involves geometrical beds arranged symmetrically and bordered in some way, and the garden usually has a centerpiece such as an urn, a sculpture, a sundial, a fountain, or a birdbath.

Here is my design (on the right) including a list of plants that I'm planning for each sector (click to enlarge any images), and also a to-scale hand sketch (on the left) of the overall layout of the garden showing the location of the herb garden:

My herb garden is rectangular, not quite square, and measures about 30 square meters (about 322 square feet). It will have three entries, all leading to a central round area.

The following features are planned.

Border: Before winter sets in for good I want to complete planting of the entire periphery with a border of low boxwood hedging (buxus sempervirens "blauer Heinz"). This is a very traditional and widespread plant for low hedges in many countries. Slugs and snails leave it alone. Luckily, I was able to use compost earth from one of our silos to give the boxwoods a good start. Click for a closeup of that bucket of rich compost. And on the right an overview of the progress made to date on the hedge.

Centerpiece: I plan to put a birdbath on a pedestal in the center of the garden. The garden colony is full of birds, especially on the edge of the forest where my garden is. Up till now I've seen starlings, wrens, European robins, magpies, blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows, chickadees, and various birds of prey. Also, my neighbor reports there are nightingales.

Paths: Bark or gravel.

Beds: There will be four symmetrical beds with different themes. In one bed there will be mostly vegetables and herbs, two beds will have color schemes (see colored gardens), and in one bed I'm planning to grow plants which are frequented by butterflies, wild bees and wasps, and other useful insects. See plan above for lists of plants in each sector.

I've made heavy use of the book mentioned in my previous post on slugs and snails in choosing plants that these creatures don't like.

Here's a video introduction to formal herb gardening.

And now to finish a couple pictures of some beautiful roses still blooming in the garden in late October (click to enlarge):

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rules and bureaucracy, perceptions of Germany

After starting up my blog, I of course took a look to see if other expats had published anything about German garden colonies. Sure enough, I found an article in an online British newspaper written by an English person who had leased a garden in northern Germany. The article was not without the usual gratuitous remarks one expects from the British press on the subject of anything German. In this case the author complained about the plethora of rules and bureaucracy in the garden association contract and the exaggerated orderliness of things, favorite stereotypes of course.

My observation so far at our colony is that things are very laid back and "live and let live". Sure there are gardens that look like they've been manicured with the proverbial nail scissors Click any photo to enlarge),
gardens full of kitschy dwarfs,

gardens with extremely precise geometric beds, but also many many gorgeous imaginative gardens that are a joy to behold, see some examples below in my immediate vicinity in the colony (click to enlarge):

There are wonderfully overgrown gardens (albeit with beautiful big vegetables, see below):

There are even a fair number of neglected gardens. In fact right next to mine there's a garden that has not only been obviously untended for the entire summer, it also contains two huge pine trees, something expressly forbidden in the contract. The other neighbors have told me that it's been like that for ten years. But apparently no one has ever complained, and the owner is not being kicked out or forced to chop down the trees. I'm not sure the neighbors in my parents' suburban US neighborhood would be that tolerant. My own immediate neighbors are friendly, helpful, and discrete. Apparently you can operate in your own garden however you see fit as long as you don't bother anybody.

I personally am glad of all the rules concerning quiet times, garbage disposal, environmental protection, upkeep of community grounds (they are beautiful), etc. And as I wrote in my first post, the fact that German communities generously appropriate land for cheap lease to residents enables me and thousands of others to enjoy a villa-sized garden. I appreciate that and will accept their rules.

Here are some photos of the common grounds and well-kept playground in the colony (click to enlarge):