Year of Grace, Day 174. Three years in a garden’s life

I suppose it is fitting that I am contemplating leaving my garden just when it is coming into its own. When we moved in three summers ago, the garden was choked with weeds – in the back, stinging nettle and brambles stood well over 2 meters and formed an impenetrable mass. In the front, construction work had gouged out all the topsoil, and goutweed and bindweed strangled the all-but-moribund roses.

I could have had someone else take care of it. But I looked upon this unpromising wilderness as a challenge. And, more importantly, as a gym – my very own green gym. Rooting out stubborn and deep weed roots, digging in garden compost, trundling a heavily loaded wheelbarrow – these have constituted my daily exercise. And the beauty of it is that it was all spent outdoors, blessed with fresh air and sunshine (hmm… rarely) and drizzly rain and mist, and graced with the company of a resident cheeky robin and serenaded with birdsong. And over the many hours outdoors engaged in this very enjoyable toil, I had in my mind a picture of Okuyama-san, my mentor in Yuzawa, Akita in Japan, and his daily routine of 2 hours before breakfast and  2 hours again before supper of garden work.

I also rejoiced in being able to bring a benzine-powered lawn mower to life. What a triumph for me to overcome my fear of starting one of these engines! Though I admit, an electric one or, better still, a cordless one would be my preference. I guess I am a gadget lover at heart – and I am rather pleased with my cordless weed whacker.

Here are some results of my efforts. Not perfect, but such an improvement over the bramble-and-nettle wilderness of three summers ago. And to top it all – we’ve had the reward of gorgeous flowers with their infinitely varied forms and colours and scents!

Not to mention the incomparable experience of feasting on home-grown artichokes. And as well seeing the look of surprise on passers-by when they ask what the huge flower buds are that look familiar (but they cannot place them) that are growing in my front garden. Artichokes?!!! In Bonn?!!! Yes indeed. The bounty of nature — as Okuyama-san so often intoned.

I mustn’t forget to include the companionship of Frau Grau, who tends the spinney that adjoins my back garden. We have spent hours chatting over the fence, about all sorts of topics — from the use of kaolin (Heilerde) for the runs and Echinacea (she pronounced it the German way, which stumped me initially) for colds. And I have been blessed with her cherries and plums, freshly picked from her trees. And I have given some of them to her back, bottled as jam.

For all of these blessings and the joy of tending a garden from untamed wilderness to (slightly) tamed wilderness (I prefer my garden to be a bit on the wild side) —  I am deeply grateful.

Nachtigal_under the yew azalea bamboo_0987The rhododendron has had an extended bloom this year — obviously liking the company of the bamboos.

There was nothing here in this space by the back gate three years ago, and now moss (encouraged with doses of yogurt and buttermilk), wild strawberries, and ferns and campanula adorn the granite stone wall. And in the small patch below, more campanula, Heucherella, and blue-flowered Jacob’s Ladder are blooming, spangled with the fallen petals of the jasmine-scented Philadelphus.

One of the bamboos, surrounded by soon-to-bloom daylily and Crocosmia “Lucifer.” Despite the moles and voles tunneling underneath, this bamboo is thriving. Unlike the other two in huge tubs, this one is in the ground and staying behind.Geranium Rozanne — so generous with its blue flowers all summer long — and multi-coloured and perfumed Sweet Williams.

The artichokes that caused an elderly gent on a bike to get down and pause the other day, curious as to what it was. Multiflora roses and a volunteer (self-sown) evening primrose (the tall, pale yellow flower behind) are its companions.

One of the experimental artichokes at the back — of 10 planted, 9 survived the past winter without the protection of a warm wall. We ate the largest bud the other day, roasted, slathered with olive oil, Spanish-style (alcachofas al horno) and dipped in lemony vinaigrette — it was nutty and took well to roasting. Much better flavoured than the ones that had grown in front, warmed and cosseted over winter by a South-facing wall. I wonder whether the truism holds here — of fruits, in this case a flower, tasting better and with more character, because of adversity. Hmm…

And my favourites — the hydrangeas. Now coming into bloom. They were blue, but are now turning pink and purple despite bi-weekly doses of aluminium sulphate. Whatever their colour, I adore them!Nachtigal_hydrangeas blue mauve zoom_0982

Here’s one that obviously imbibed more blueing 🙂

Year of Grace, Day 173. The garden in midsummer

The past two days have been incredibly perfect summer days – at various times the sky alternated between a pale turquoise (a rare colour for it to be here in Bonn! Or anywhere else that I have experienced, actually!) and a pure azure. I treasure these days that come so rarely in this country. M and I sat outside after dinner, relishing the twilight. It was neither hot nor cold, there was no wind – and the blackbirds’ enchanting exchanges from the surrounding trees were all that interrupted the stillness. There were no mosquitoes (thank goodness — or grass mites either — those are yet to come!) It was simply one of those perfect evenings to be outdoors — lingering outside, waiting for total darkness to fall. And I thought how good it was to JUST BE. No drinking or eating or doing anything — just being still, sitting, savouring the stillness and the oncoming fall of night.

I spent all day yesterday out in the garden, making supports for the roses that are doing so well this year. The trusses of blooms on the multiflora roses are so heavy that with the rain we get about every second or third day, the branches collapse with all the weight and the lovely blooms lie bedraggled on the ground. In fact with so much continuous rain in the past week, the rose buds on the classic, perfumed rose (on which I have written about earlier)  have gotten spoiled and rotted without opening. There is such a thing as too much rain for certain plants, I found.

All in all the garden this year, its third year under my care, has flourished, and for that I have to thank the rain that has come with more regularity than other years (we even had a bit of hail, but not as large as those that fell last year). I have not had to water the front garden as often as I’ve done in previous years. Nevertheless I cannot be entirely complacent: the passionfruit vine, which had so many promising buds, has withered for some unknown reason, and I am distraught. I thought it was lack of water as it had yellowing leaves, but it didn’t perk up despite watering. I am leaving it alone now, hoping it will recover. I had been so looking forward to a multitude of blooms as compared to last year’s meagre three. And as well I had hoped for some fruit. There are obviously many more lessons about fruit growing that I have to learn.

Nevertheless there is so much to enjoy and appreciate in the garden, despite these relatively minor setbacks. All part of having and caring for a garden. For all these blessings and the joy these flowers and plants provide, I am truly grateful.

Here is a little posey – so small it fits in a shot glass. I am enamoured of the colours and scents from this tiny bouquet. The velvety red rose is from a plant that my friend Domi gave me two years ago, and this is its first bloom. The pale pink rose on the right, still in bud when I picked it for the posey, is from a New Dawn climbing rose, finally getting into its stride in its third year. The first summer it just grew; last year it had a couple of flowers, and now it has a good number of blooms. The slightly darker pink rose with many petals is a multiflora — not scented, but very floriferous. The sweetpeas in purple and pink overwintered nicely despite being exposed to frost and snow. The white minibells are from a Heuchera-Tiarella cross, called Heucherella. The pale blue marguerite-like flowers are Felicia — my first time to grow this annual. I love their pale, sky-blue rays with yellow centres. I also stuck in a pale pink Pelargonium, bottom left. I couldn’t help taking this posey’s portrait from different angles. Wishing you all the joys of lovely midsummer!

Nachtigal_posey vg_0969

Year of Grace, Day 172. Three pallets and two mats

I’ve been wanting to upcycle some pallets that used to serve as my “potting bench.” No. 2 son was here on a business trip for a couple of weeks (and spent the weekends with us, sheer heaven!), and with his DIY skills, this is what mother and son accomplished in a couple of hours last weekend. Voila! A garden bench that looks like the ones they use in Japan for serving tea outdoors.




What else did we use? 2 shelf boards and some spare wood, screws (better than nails, according to No. 2 son, so that the pallet wood doesn’t splinter), duct tape, and tough black plastic bags. Our tools? A drill and a saw.

The plastic bags were wrapped around the boards to rain-proof them, before being screwed into place. The screw heads were covered with strips of duct tape for additional rain-proofing. And last, a bamboo mat covered the seat, and a length of reed matting surrounded the bottom part of the bench. The reed matting was cut from a huge roll I had used to protect the bamboos during their first winter. The reed matting would’ve been too brittle to sit on. The bamboo mat had once served to protect the carpet under M’s office chair, and although its lining has worn off, it now has a better quality of life outdoors!

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention zipties in the materials list. They were used to lash the three pallets together. It’s my first time to use them. They are absolutely fab!

What I loved about this bench is being able to spend a gorgeous afternoon with my son!  Quality time thinking about and then creating something together out of odds and ends. The sole purchase were the zipties. And to top it all, the end result was beautiful as well as useful! We ended up both very pleased with ourselves.

Year of Grace Day 171. Nature’s palette follows no rules

Tricolor pansy, also known as Johnny jump up

Tricolor pansy, also known as Johnny jump up

The tricolor pansy – also known as Johnny jump up — is such a small flower that it rarely gets noticed. It deserves resounding accolades for having such an extraordinary colour palette! And as well for its lovely scent, which I only discovered, quite by accident this year, when I planted these Johnny jump ups outside our bedroom. Not surprising actually once I remembered that the pansy and the sweet-scented violet belong to the same family, Viola ☺.

Sweet pea 'Matucana' -- ancestor of all modern sweet peas

Sweet pea ‘Matucana’ — ancestor of all modern sweet peas

The sweet pea is another flower whose colour mixtures are truly scintillating, in particular the one from which all modern sweet peas are descended – the Matucana. And it has such a heady scent! It is such a pleasure to work in the garden with the sweet peas’ perfume wafting about!

Year of Grace, Day 170. After the rain

After the rain and thunderstorm the other day, I went out into the garden first thing in the morning, and these were what greeted me.

And I was quite glad that I had cut the last of the peonies to grace the house. They would’ve been battered by the furious winds and rain.

Year of Grace Day 169. Things to be grateful for

For some odd reason, while lost in the rabbit hole of gardening and garden design sites this morning (thank you Fine Gardening!), I came upon a Kabbala site that suggested 5 things for a meaningful life, and top of the list was — you guessed it — to name 5 things to be grateful for today. I have been posting for the past 168 days things to be grateful for, but as a further reinforcer, here are my five plus one extra for today.

1. In the same way that no two days are ever alike, so too are the sunsets that grace the sky that I see from the house. Here are two sunsets photographed on two consecutive days, just a few days ago. In the past three years, I have not seen a split cloud as on the first picture. The second day’s clouds were like a flock of sheep.

Although these may not compare with the splendour of a tropical or Mediterranean sunset over the sea, there is enough diversity of cloud shapes and colours from my vantage point that I never tire of gazing out to see what unique combinations have been created for the day.

2. The roses and peonies, lavender, lad’s love, rosemary, Philadelphus are all creating such an outpouring of beauty and scent in the front garden – it is glorious! Previous years have not seen such glory, and I am overwhelmed.

3. I thought the black bamboo had died, as one day all its leaves had drooped and curled. I was devastated, as it is my favourite of the two I’ve got. Despite copious watering, its leaves continued to fall. The other day I was surprised to see on the bare twigs, slivers of fresh green, and at ground level, some fat shoots! I’m so relieved and glad it’s alive and doing well!

4. Fine Gardening is an American magazine that I came upon by accident decades ago when it was just first published, and it taught me most of what I know about gardening. In our multiple moves, I’d stopped subscribing years ago. Recently I came upon their website and I have been avidly reading — nay guzzling! — all of their posts.

5. Two sons coming to visit – I am speechless with joy and delight!

6. The sweetpeas are in bloom — and they are for favourite and only daughter, as she adores them!

Sweet peas

Sweet peas

Year of Grace Day 168. Queen of flowers

Three years ago, I realized that I had never fully appreciated peonies. The ones growing in my garden in England, planted by the previous owner, were the common red sort. They were nice and went well with the Siberian irises, but I didn’t quite understand the reverent adoration of the peony (to the point of obsession by some fanciers) in Chinese and Japanese culture.

My first encounter with truly breathtaking peonies was three years ago. I saw these beauties in the rain, blooming magnificently despite being choked by weeds and nearly crushed by scaffolding, while the house was undergoing renovation. Thinking that they deserved to be appreciated rather than smothered by concrete dust and debris, I took home what I could pick without getting stung by the fierce nettles. I was unprepared for their perfume, reminiscent of hyacinths, though not as overpowering.  There are those who cannot bear to be in the same room as hyacinths, but peonies are more subtle — they keep their scent close to their hearts. And their multi-layered petals streaked with red – oh, such exquisite, delicate complexity and perfection!

Of the three bushes, only one survived the aftermath of construction, perhaps the other two had become buried too deeply by the building crew while tidying up. Peonies prefer to sit rather shallowly on the ground. The lone survivor took all of three years to recover from the trauma. The year we moved in, it had only one flower bud; it was too malnourished and had become vulnerable to predation by ants and aphids to fully open. Here are some exquisite blooms from the same bush two years on, looking stunningly marvellous and very queenly indeed! The equally exquisite roses (of unknown provenance) are fitting ladies-in-waiting. 🙂 Please click on photos for a larger view.

Year of Grace, Day 167. Intoxicating June

We’ve been having a rare run of perfect days since June began: sunny, mild – not too hot, not too cold – and lingering in the air, the scent of glorious flowers in bloom! Roses, of course, and superb sweet peas and jasmine-scented Philadelphus.  One mid-afternoon sitting in the kitchen and gazing out to the garden, I marvelled at the sheer perfection of one such day.  James Russell Lowell’s poem came to mind: “And what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days….”  One night, just after midnight, we had an impressive thunder-and-lightning storm — nature’s magnificent son-et-lumière display, seemingly happening just over the house. The day after, I checked to see what damage the plants sustained from the downpour. I needn’t have worried — they seem to have revelled in the dazzling light and electrical charges, as well as the refreshing rain!

And when a grown-up child comes visiting from far-off Tokyo, then that just crowns the perfection of these early summer days. Kampai!

Nachtigal nigorizake g_7827

Year of Grace, Day 166. Roses, roses

Until I came upon intensely fragrant roses, I was never a huge fan. I found them rather unfriendly (especially to my then growing children) — being prickly, vulnerable to a host of pests and diseases, extremely temperamental, prima donna-ish plants. And so I could never bring myself to fully appreciate having them in my garden. They are, admittedly, exceedingly elegant and beautiful, and I always admired them in other people’s gardens. But I have come across many that are sheer perfection in colour and form, particularly in bud, but alas carry little or no scent. What’s the point of a barely scented or unscented rose? A rose without its unique perfume is, to me, not quite the real thing. The first truly, intensely rose-scented rose – I say this because some roses smell rather lemony-citrusy – that I planted myself was a Zéphirine Drouhin.

Zephirine Drouhin

Zephirine Drouhin

Zéphirine (named after the wife of a French rose fancier surnamed Drouhin from the 1800s) is a climbing Bourbon rose. Its two outstanding features are its perfume that carries in the air for several meters around — characteristic of damask roses — and its lack of thorns! How wonderful to be able to stand close to Ms. Zéphirine and not get your clothes or fingers pricked. Its colour has occasionally been described as magenta, which sounds rather brassy and also uncharitable, because in real life in my garden in Leamington Spa, it was a bright pink. (Some catalogs describe it as cerise-pink.) It also has pale pink sports, known as Kathleen Harrop and Martha, but I have never come across them.

Here in Bonn in our third summer in this house, the roses in the front garden are looking their best. The first year they had yet to recover from construction upheaval and debris, not to mention the thickets of thuggish goutweed and bindweed that had flourished among them, choking their roots. I had to prune the rose bushes hard to the ground to rid them of the powdery mildew that clad their ailing and malnourished stems. In their second year, I planted chives around the bushes, and that seems to have done the trick. This year I have yet to see aphids or other pests  on them and the bushes look marvellously healthy and full of fat buds.

The intensely fragrant rose whose name I do not know

I don’t know which variety of rose these are, but they have the characteristic quartered structure of classic old roses. And their scent! Oh! To walk among them at any time, especially after the rain when drops glisten on their petals, is such a delight! This is the first time I don’t mind their extremely bristliness one bit. (To cut a few for the house, I had to don a pair of thick leather gardening gloves.) A vase of them in the living room perfumes the entire space and the nearby hall, including the stairs. Even a single one fills the kitchen with its heady perfume.

And its quartered petals mean that when fully open, its flower head doesn’t go all limp and blowsy. I love its colour too – deep pink in the centre and pale, almost white at the edges. The buds too are whitish pink suffused with blushes of darker pink. It is not at all a delicate plant: its leaves are rather leathery and resemble those on Rosa rugosa, the Ramanas rose, which is known in its native Japan as hamanasu (coastal pear) for its remarkable rosehips, as large as cherry tomatoes.  I think I’ve just fallen madly in love with this old-fashioned, highly perfumed rose, notwithstanding its exceeding prickliness, though I have yet to know its name. In its quartered form, with multiple petals clustered around a central green eye, it resembles Louise Odier and Madame Isaac Pereira, though its colouring is different. (But I’ve only searched for its possible name online.) I would love for some rose expert to identify it.

Year of Grace Day 165. A moated castle

There are three moated Burgs or castles near Bonn – Burg Adendorf, Burg Gudenau, and Burg Odenhausen. All are located in Wachtberg, a few kilometers away. The other day we passed by the last two: Burg Gudenau was closed, but Burg Odenhausen was open. Odenhausen is more of a manorhouse than a castle actually. And the owners seem  enamoured of things English – a red telephone box stood  next to a large tree just by the parking lot.  Any moment now, perhaps Doctor Who might come barging out ☺.

There was a duckhouse, or rather moated duck castle, whose Oriental architecture went very nicely with the castle’s oriel window.

The woodland garden was quite inviting too.

It is amazing what jewels lie hidden so close to home.