Thursday, December 30, 2010

Four seasons in the potager - transformation of the allotment garden - Happy New Year!

When I bought my allotment in late summer of 2009, one of my goals was to create a potager, sometimes known as an herb or kitchen garden, or in German Bauerngarten, with the elements traditional to this European garden style: symmetrical form, hedging, a centerpiece, and a mixture of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.

Now, a year and a half and lots of planning, digging and planting later, the potager is pretty much how I want it to be. For final post of the year 2010 I've put together a review showing the transformation throughout the four seasons.

August 2009
Here's what the area intended for the potager looked like when we bought the garden. It was occupied mostly by a makeshift tomato shelter and several beds of wax beans, bordered by roses and currant bushes.

September-October-November 2009
We removed or transplanted almost everything, tore down the tomato house, ripped out the wooden planks serving as paths, removed some of the lawn, hoed and improved the soil by adding compost, planted lupins as green manure (which were unfortunately greatly decimated by slugs - my first introduction to our slug problem), and began planting a boxwood hedge around the perimeter.
Before winter set in, we completed the outer perimeter of boxwood and planted some bulbs and perennials.

Winter 2009
My husband climbed the trees on the edge of the garden and pruned them considerably in order to let more sunlight into the potager. It was really worth it. After that, the garden lay dormant under the occasional light blanket of snow until spring.

March 2010
Finally I could continue! The main jobs to be accomplished in the spring were to lay the stone tiles for the four paths, create a circular area in the center where the paths would meet and the centerpiece, a birdbath, would be located, fill the center with gravel and plant a circular boxwood hedge around it. And of course to begin planting in the resulting four sections of the potager. My little boxwoods had all survived the winter well.

April 2010
It turned out to be harder than I had imagined to find a birdbath I liked. On a trip to Holland to visit an old friend, I stopped by one of that country's fabulous gardening centers on the way home and finally found one.

May-June 2010
Simultaneously with completion of the paths, gravel and hedging, the bulbs and perennials planted in the fall started to bloom, and I was delighted with progress so far!

Summer-Fall 2010
In the course of the summer I planted two of the quadrants mostly with vegetables and herbs, and two with predominantly flowers in a mix of annuals and perennials. In each section we kept at least one of the heritage roses I inherited from our predecessor. I revised my original planning to accommodate for the slug problem. If you're interested in my conclusions on slugs after a summer of observation, here's a post I wrote on it. The following shots are of early and late summer, respectively.

Winter 2010
This winter I'll be spending some time planning improvements for the spring - some things were too big or too small for their locations, some areas need a different mix of blooms, the zucchinis have to go somewhere else, and I'm considering putting some kind of tarp under the gravel to keep plants from growing through. This year we've had lots of snow, but the potager has enough contours now to look nice even so.

It's been a wonderful gardening year for me.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas - Fröhliche Weihnachten

I wish you all the very best for the holidays as well as happiness, health and prosperity in the New Year!

My grandmother gave this December Angel to my mother when I was born. It has adorned our Christmas table ever since.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Some personal Roman highlights

We've been back from Rome for a week and finally have our photos and thoughts organized.

Of course we saw all the fabulous Rome "top ten" sights, and I won't go into that. Instead, here's just a brief description of what the three of us liked best (husband, daughter, me). We have a family tradition of naming our personal high points and low points at the end of every trip.

My husband's high point was taking the glass elevator to the top of the Vittorio Emanuele monument at dusk and watching the sun set over Rome. In case you're not familiar with this huge structure in pure white marble, it was built in honor of the first king of unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, in the early twentieth century, and is considered by some to be an eyesore that doesn't really fit into its medieval and antique surroundings. But it is very impressive! You can take an elevator up to the roof and walk around under the two huge winged victory chariots that crown the monument. We did this at dusk, giving us a 360 degree vista of the sun going down over this amazing city. From up there you can see and identify just about everything  - the Colosseum, Forum Romanum, St. Peter's, the hills surrounding Rome, the Tiber, etc. etc. It was a beautiful, warm evening, enhancing the experience even more, and a pleasant relief from our hectic day down at noisy, crowded street level.

My own highlight was taking an excursion to Ostia Antica, Rome's ancient harbor about 30 km from the city. Two thousand years ago it had a population of about 50,000 and was a thriving port city. The entire site is so well-preserved - much better than many of the antique ruins in Rome itself - that you can get a feeling for what it must have been like to live there - it must have been nice! Today it is also a lovely peaceful place.

Here's how I imagine a day in ancient Ostia. I wake up in my bedroom with tiled floor and walls of expert masonry.

After breakfast, I set off into town on the day's errands.

On the way to the market, I pass by the athletic field, where if I'm lucky I might be able to watch wrestling training.

Around the edge of the field are the various shops, all with appropriately tiled floors. I might stop into the fishmonger's.

Continuing on my way through city streets whose names are still documented,

I might pause for a moment of worship in the temple.

At the end of a busy day the family attends a production in the amphitheater.

In our case, we ate our picnic while sitting up high in the amphitheater and enjoying the view. Highly recommended! It costs all of one Euro to take public transportation out to Ostia from Rome.

Our last day was warm and sunny and we decided to return to the Piazza del Popolo in order to see the cathedral of Santa Maria del Popolo, and to walk from there to the Spanish Steps, which we had only seen in the rain on our first day. It turned out the city of Rome was putting on a free concert on the Spanish Steps, and this turned out to be great fun - and our daughter's high point of the trip.

The first performance was by the Roman police big band.

They were first joined and then followed by an American show band called "The Infernos" (of all things), who wowed the audience as I think only American show bands can do. The Infernos had an incredibly varied repertoire, including a perfect Frank Sinatra imitator

and vocalists and instrumentalists who could do everything from hits of the fifties, salsa, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, to country western! It was one of those serendipitous magical moments you sometimes experience as a tourist. A beautiful day, both Romans and tourists united in just enjoying the moment. It put us all in a great mood just to listen, and deserved its selection as high point.

All three of us agreed that our guided tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Basilica came in a close second as favorite undertaking. Our guide was a young Italian historian, and she did a great job. Other favorite sights were the two basilica San Giovanni in Laterano and San Paolo fuori le Mura, both breathtakingly pompous and sumptuous, the former with huge sculptures of the twelve apostles, and the latter with portraits of all 265 popes.

I wanted to visit the Botanical Gardens of the University of Rome, but kept forgetting how early it now gets dark and never made it in time. Next trip!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Off to Rome

Dear readers, I'll be in Rome with my family for the coming week and won't be blogging until sometime after that.
Until then happy gardening,

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A gnome's tale of discrimination and crime in the garden

It was the worst of times in the gnome world. The little folk with the helping hands formerly so beloved of all garden owners had come to be regarded as symbolic of a petit-bourgeois mentality; their owners were increasingly seen as Philistines.

Even in the gnome heartland, the very Shire of gnomedom - Southern Germany - garden gnomes, dwarfs, and imps were in ill-repute. Many had already left for the diaspora in far away places like Illinois and Wisconsin. Gardeners that still had gnomes often hid them away in sheds or relegated them to shabby corners of their gardens out of shame. There were reports of gnomes being locked up and even mutilated!

And on the other side of the mighty Rhine River, the powerful Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ - Garden Gnome Liberation Front) was on the rampage, purporting to liberate gnomes from a life of bondage, but in reality kidnapping and then abandoning them in basements, forests, public libraries and other deserted places.

It was only a question of time before the FLNJ started foraging to the East of the border, for there were age-old resentments between the neighboring countries that ran deep.

To be sure, there were still some sheltered havens in Germany where gnomes were appreciated and nurtured as of old, one of these being a large garden colony near the traditionally open-minded metropolis of Mannheim. Here gnomes could go about their business in peace, performing their time-cherished tasks -

pushing wheelbarrows,

carrying lanterns,

tending animals,

pondering life,

painting the spots on poisonous mushrooms,

and other important things like waving and carrying buckets.

But one misty fall morning, an alarm was raised in the gnome community. The lookout gnome on the morning shift was the first to hear the terrible news,

and messenger gnomes ran to all corners of the garden colony

to spread the word that an assembly was to be held to discuss reports of sordid crimes right here in River City the garden colony.

Something unthinkable had happened. While performing her morning chores, Snow White had been accosted by an exhibitionist gnome. To make matters worse, he had dressed up in the most sacred of gnome costumes.

But much much worse than this was the discovery of Johann Wichtel, stabbed with a kitchen knife right in his own allotment.

Now while big folk had occasionally been known to commit immoral acts towards little folk, crimes within the gnome community itself were hitherto unheard of.

It was an outrage. Fathers feared for their children,

Many started taking up arms and forming vigilante committees.

Rumors were rampant as to who the perpetrators might be. Could it be one of the reclusive giant gnomes who preferred the company of big folk to those of their own race?

Could it have been one of the many immigrant gnomes now entering the country under the new labor mobility laws of the EU? Who knew what they might be capable of.

Perhaps one of the economic refugee gnomes from Greece,

or one of the strange race of Belgian gnomes seen more and more frequently?

Would these immigrants ever be able to assimilate and adopt German gnome customs as their own?

To be sure, some of the native gnome habits had their dark side, and there were increasing instances of binge drinking among gnome youth, perhaps leading to crime??

The situation is grave. At the end of this sorry report we'd like to make this appeal to all gardeners: please consider giving your gnome a place in your home, perhaps among the houseplants, where he can be safe and happy. After all, we wouldn't want yet another magical race to disappear from the face of Middle Earth Europe.

All photos taken on original location in the garden colony Kleingärtnerverein Mannheim-Süd e.V.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The aster greets us as we pass....

The aster greets us as we pass
With her faint smile.
 (Sarah Helen Whitman, American poet, from A Day of the Indian Summer), found at

I just knew someone must have written a poem about these beautiful autumn flowers, one of my very favorites. And "faint smile" is fitting, at least when compared to more flamboyant fall blossoms like dahlias or marigolds. On a recent dazzling day in the garden colony, though, I felt like they were laughing gaily rather than smiling faintly.

The most common type are the tall, light pink-purple asters seen in the photos above and below, found along fences and borders all over our garden colony:

There's also a lovely variety of reddish asters that don't get quite as high:

And just look at the riotous colors in this garden:

The owner of the allotment in the photo below invited me in so I could photograph from a more advantageous angle.

My all-time favorites, though, are the very pale, almost white asters in my title photo. These asters belong to my neighbor, and I am fortunate to have them along our mutual border, under the old gnarled apple tree. Below is the full-sized picture. What you can't see here are the hundreds of bees on the blossoms.

So of course one of the first things I planted last fall after acquiring the allotment were asters. I purchased four plants that were labeled as dwarf asters ("Kissenaster"). Here's my daughter planting the ones she picked out:

I'm sorry to say that two of the four plants were immediately devoured and killed off by slugs. The other two survived and are now blooming this fall. But they aren't dwarfs. I had intended them to form a pillow of blossoms below the roses, but instead they now intermingle with them, also fine.

My neighbor told me that once asters get to a certain size the slugs leave them alone. And indeed in the spring I watched the slugs happily eating the leaves of both his and my asters, but after a while they stopped and the plants did fine. In fact, they seem to already be proliferating.

Happy autumn gardening, everyone.