Sunday, 23 March 2014

Even Londoners Might Not Know Everything

Britta Huegel

Maybe I should say "Even Londoners might not know every place."
I'm speaking of the Royal Park "Isabella Plantation" - a wonderful park in Greater London, and maybe you should wait a few weeks, but the first azalea on my balcony has opened her tiny buds and tries to envelope herself in a veil of fragrance (though today the weather changed: from 20°C yesterday to 7°C now.).
I visited the Isabella Plantation last year in my monthly stay in London end of May. Everything was still flowering, but on the verge to vanish. It was Trish, (my sweet landlady and now my friend) who told me about it - in her long life she hadn't been there, but heard about it.
And it was marvellous! The long way from the station and bus station was a bit -- very solitary -- but as an 'Urban Warrior' I wasn't that worried. And you can go there by car. It is in Kingston upon Thames.
It is a huge park, mostly rhododendron and azaleas, some very old ('Planted in 1831' reads the plaquette beside a huge rhododendron), and beautiful little brooks.

Britta Huegel

Britta Huegel

Then follows a heather landscape with a big pond.

Britta Huegel

Britta Huegel

Find the time - plan to go there - it is really worthwile, because gardeners and nature are giving their best - nature even as a florist.

Britta Huegel

Sunday, 16 February 2014

"The Sparrow Loves Berlin's Chaos"

... though instead of 'chaos' some choose the word "mess". 
Our mayor gaily coined the phrase "Berlin is poor, but sexy". And when the sparrows heard this they came in flocks to this wonderful city - opposite of our house about 70 of them sit in a huge bush (that is not a poetic hyperbole!) and yell - maybe they have worn headphones far too long, or went to too many rock concerts and thus are as deaf as many of our poor kids I see hear every day in the underground... 
In many regions of Middle Europe the population of sparrows has diminuished rapidly  - mostly because refurbished buildings don't offer many breeding sites in niches and cavities anymore. And there is not much sand to be found any longer, which they need to take their 'bath'. Cities for sparrows must not be too orderly - otherwise not even the best winter feeding will help. 
In Berlin they thrive, and  you see signposts in many Berlin restaurants in summer: "Please don't feed the sparrows" - because they are a real plague, jumping onto your plate with cake while you eat - wink insolently at you and munch. As they did to my utter astonishment at McDonald's: there are whole sparrow families living solely on French fries - though I think I don't see them here on our balcony on the second store, too obese by now... 
I read in an article that from most birds - we have about 200 species in Germany - only 15 come regularly to feeding places in gardens or balconies. 
Though I see in the year a wide variety of birds on my balcony (well - "wide" for a city), for feeding come mostly sparrows, followed closely by - sparrows, then five Brothers in Arms, meaning the great titmouse (I know them personally), and sometimes comes a blue tit (then I get excited - I love their heavenly blue!), while the Eurasian jay waits till warmer times to dig in my box pots. And magpies and doves and crows fly past, thank you very much, and the wren, blackbirds (who sang this morning for the very first time since late autumn), robins, a great spotted woodpecker  and even nightingales prefer to bustle in our huge and wild backyard. 
Today, after years of uncertainty, I got a bird riddle solved: I learned from Joanne Noragon's blog "Cup on the Bus" that in the time of my garden in Hildesheim we once had tufted titmice as guests. 
At that time I thought the mysterious birds wore a 'quiff'. 
Elvis - Reloaded.  

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

"When my time comes, I have to flower" - Snowdrops once again

Britta Huegel

little ballerinas - so fragile-looking in their white tutu - and, like dancers serving up Illusions: both, dancer and flower, are working hard and unrelenting against gravity. 
I love them in their simple form - elegant Art Nouveau style snowdrops, with a hint of virginity about them - their frilly sisters, the 'filled' ones (I hope you will kindly tell me the adequate term) are not my cup of tea. 
Snowdrops balance on the line that divides winter from spring - the quote in the headline is from a snowdrop-poem that the German poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote. And the author Robert Walser (rough translation by me) remarked: 

"They still talk about winter; but also of spring; they speak of the past, though at the same time boldly and cheerfully of the new. They talk about coldness and yet already about more warmth; they say: There is still a lot of snow near the shadows and on the heights, but in the sun it has already melted. Still there can come quite a lot of roughness. You can't trust April."

You, my ardent reader, will startle at this last sentence. "April?" you will ask. "When I look into the front gardens they are already here!" I know - but Walser lived in Switzerland, and there many things come a bit later. 
In our gardens you will mostly find Galanthus nivalis - the 'common' snowdrop, though there are - as Vita Sackville-West points out - 14 different species (and not all are flowering in spring). 
I saw a beautiful little video on youtube - filmed by Artur Homan for Sir David Attenborough, called "Early Spring" - indulge in those 2 mesmerizing minutes! I cannot load it up, but here is the link: it is worth to paste and watch it.
As a practical gardener you have to plant snowdrops 'in the green' (if you take dry bulbs they often don't flower for years). Then, hopefully they spread - left on their own they weave huge carpets of white and green in the woods.  
In 'The Morville Hours' Katherine Swift mentions an 'Old Tom the shepherd': 

"(...) who has been planting snowdrops for more than fifty years. He started in 1953, the year he married. The date was written in snowdrops on the front lawn of his cottage, flanked by two snowdrop pheasants (...). He lives at Broncroft Parks, (...) he used every year to take clumps of snowdrops from the banks of the brook and plant them out along the lanes, each year a little further - from Broncroft Parks to Broncroft; and on towards Broncroft Castle: and now other people (...) do the same (...) spreading the snowdrops from Broncroft to Broadstone, from Broadstone to Tugford, from Tugford to Holdgate, lining the lanes with snowdrops, a ribbon of white." p.65

That sounds so marvellous! 
And as inviting as the Scottish Snowdrop Festival: 

Have you ever been there? 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

If a snowdrop can come through the frozen earth, I can be persistent too - and write again.

Britta Huegel

Yesterday I started to clean up our balcony. 
"What? You did what?" gasped a friend of mine. "That's way too early!" Maybe. 
But the weather was fine. I don't want to insult true Berlin-born inhabitants, but we had a blue-white Bavarian sky smiling down on us. No snow, temperatures about +5°C - and a weatherforecast that predicts it will remain so for some time. 
I longed to have my tiny little slice of nature back! Had looked long enough on opaque blister foile which did its job, but wasn't beautiful. 
So I lifted the veil. 
AH! The scarlet blossoms of the Chinese quince have survived! Bliss! And, and, and... 
This winter I did a lot of hard thinking. 
- 1. I saw that a lot of people still read my blog, although I haven't written since November. 
- 2. I told myself that it is absolutely ridiculous that I feel like an imposter - because my garden is (still)  in Hildesheim, but I am in Berlin. So what? Can I still 'publish' some of the texts I wrote there? You bet! All fiction is - fiction. Though my garden-fiction has real roots - to stay in the garden metaphor. Might see those texts as a sort of seed. 
- 3. Balcony alone is not enough. But I hate it when people always moan about what they don't have. I have so much: in Berlin and elsewhere I'm showered with botany. 
So I decided: 
        a) I will tell you about the plants on my balcony - hence the  snowdrop, which I will deal with in the next post - hopefully to amuse you and enrich your knowledge - though it might well be that you will enrich mine - you are oh so welcome to comment!  
        b) I will try to add my own photographs 
        c) and sometimes add quotes and poems of real poets  
        d) and - when I find them (and am allowed to take a picture)                 show you how painters and artists saw the flower. 
        d) and give you tips on beautiful gardens and parks -                           Germany and Great Britain, or As My Wimsey Takes Me, meaning wherever I choose to go. 
Sounds good? 
I will write (about) every second week. 
This way I can further indulge in my love to flowers, plants, and botany - and we can exchange our experiences. 
I know that contrary to the common prejudice gardeners like to talk. At least those in blogland. 
So let's start! 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Quinces and Marriage

Britta Huegel

(In 2010 I have posted this essay - slightly altered - before. But: I had quinces before - and you are new readers, so: why not?)

When I enter my study the whole room wraps me in a fragrance that is beyond comparison. I had put on my desk some quinces! Lovingly I had polished that fluffy fur away which sits on their hard skin and now they shine bright yellow. And scent! Yes, you can really smell that they actually belong to the rose family, rosacea.
"Cydonic apple," apple from Crete, so the quince is called in Greece. Cydonia oblong chez nous. But mine are pear-shaped, which means they are even more aromatic than their chubby sisters.
Quinces need to be cooked - although I have a Turkish recipe where I mix finely grated (peeled) raw quince (almost a mousse) with equal parts of runny honey and whipped cream - delicious! It is the favourite dessert of Husband, but I don't serve it often (though I have quinces en masse) - because I want him to stay the tall slim man he is now and not get the belly of a sultan in 'Thousand and One Nights'.
Another speciality is my 'North German Quince Compote' - which also brims over with calories (well - winter comes, you need some strength!) Here it is:
First you boil the peeled quince pieces in thick sugar syrup, the quince-pieces have to remain still a little bit firm (not mushy), and when they have cooled down you add your best Armagnac in which they bathe for six weeks (in a closed glass - and don't put it into the sun!). Then they turn deeply red and then, served on a plate, they cry out for a little bit of walnut-ice-cream with whipped cream...
But the quince is not only a beautiful canvas on which you can paint with calories - it is also a carrier of deep meanings. So prescribed Solon the Athenean 600 years before Christ a marriage ritual: the engaged couple had to eat a raw quince before the wedding night.
Plutarch interpreted this ritual by saying that the sweet smell and the lovely taste with the acerbic addition were "a forecast of the suffering and sweetness of marriage". (Interesting that he mentions the suffering first...)
And the Silesian preacher Johann Colerus jeered that by this ritual young women were shown "that they now must bite into some sour apples - on behalf of a man." But I think, as they had to do that both of them, husband and wife, maybe that's why we say in Germany: "Now we are even" = Jetzt sind wir quitt" - because the German word for quince is 'Quitte').
But that might be very simple 'popular' false etymology. I interpret the quince-biting my way: the character of a spouse is as difficult to see through as a quince is difficult to cut.
Or: do not rely on the shiny exterior of a just-married lover alone, but work hard to keep that love alive and sweet - you have to work on a quince to be able to enjoy it... And you yourself have to add sugar to your marriage - "Nothing comes from nothing." Ha!
Anyhow: I will have to think thoroughly whom I bestow the great masses of quinces in this harvest upon, because "the gift of a quince ... always is seen as a declaration of love."
OH!! Fancy a quince, dear??

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Garden Boors?

You told me in your comments on 'Blue Gardens', that especially in Australia, Ipomoea is a wicked weed .(See also Rosemary's lovely post
Now I read in Barbara Damrosch's 'Garden Primer' - a no-nonsense book - about the Perennial Pea - under a headline I don't like very much: "Perennials That Spread". She writes: 
'Perennial Pea. Lathyrus lotifolius. The flowers are handsome and long-blooming clusters in shades of pink, lavender and white.' 
The following sentence has a somewhat threatening undertone, which pleases me even less: 
"Its evils are described on page 145.' 
Fluttering I leaf through: 
' But if someone offers you Lathyrus lotifolius (...) say "Thanks but no thanks.: it does not just crowd other plants - it obliterates them. Once perennial sweet pea is established, you will never get all of its roped roots of your garden.' 
THAT Gertrude J. hasn't told me. She praises the white Perennial Pea (see above), which she planted in a very tricky procedure under the delphinium that - once it has withered - makes a sort of climbing aid. Of course I had imitated that immediately, but the slugs munched away the delphiniums, and the perennial pea disappeared after two years. 
But pink coloured ones climb behind my realization of Vita Sackeville-West's Sweet Briar Hedge. Should I now cry "Thanks but no thanks!" Or is that too late, and my garden is doomed and utterly infiltrated by roped roots? 
And that is not the only garden plague - on page 145 I find quite a lot of my other darlings which had filled me with gardener's pride and joy because they were so vigorous. Till now... 
As there are: 
The evening primrose. The bushy aster. (At least I hadn't bought scarlet monarda, because I never liked her). I tried to remove 'Bouncing Bet', saponaria officinalis, without success, as three pale pink clusters of flowers in a bed show. Damrosch cautions against coneflowered rudbeckia - though I love her heart- warming yellow in autumn. But why does she not speak about sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus), also called Jerusalem artichoke? That is really VERY vigorous. When I bought it in a garden center, a customer warned me, but I thought: "Oh, that's good - the more the merrier." Now I saw at the farmers' market as a last resort that you can eat the tubers, but I still hesitate. 
But let's go on with Barbar Damrosch's list of plants, which I now secretly call 'boors in the garden'. There is 'campanula rapunculoides'. The 'Ribbon Grass', which the English call fanciful 'Gardener's Garter'. It is this pretty light-green-blue grass with the white stripe. Of course I have that too, though it gets less and less. And of course Centrantus ruber, which by now foams all around the house. Viola odorata - oh yes, that's true... And - because I don't own it, I am pleased by the combative spirit of 'The Confederate Violet':
"It will march through your garden faster than Robert E. Lee." says Barbara. 
Here his troops haven't arrived. 
Not yet.     

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Kitchen gardens and Dig for Victory gardens

Brigitta Huegel

When today  I saw the post "Student vegetable plots" on the blog 'What ho Kew?' it reminded me of a text I wrote 14 years ago. 

"Why", asked son, "don't you have a kitchen garden?" (which in Germany is called a Nutzgarten - profit or utility garden). 
I am surprised. Son has French cousins, but this would be the first French character trait I was about to discover: 
"A glimpse into French gardens shows you the equal concern of the Frenchman of his country and of cooking. Fruit and vegetable have priority over flowers and ornamental shrubs", 
writes Brigitte Tillney in her book "Culinary pleasures from the French Kitchen Garden". 
Under the text we see the photograph of a rather sullen looking little French boy, aged maybe 5, loaded with courgettes. 
Well, definitely son had beamed much more when he, at the same age, hold our harvest in his hands: a lot of cocktail tomatoes from a single plant at the warm wall of the house (where now vine and clematis grow). These tomatoes had impressed him so much that he almost couldn't wait for the day to come back from our holidays! In my diary I found this entry about our arrival home: 
"But first he  ran into the garden: he had spoken of it so often in Amrum, even dreamed of and asked: "Maybe a very fat pumpkin will block the garden gate - what will you think then?" 
I haven't forgotten the year before when he had sold a splendid kohlrabi and a few courgettes to the neighbours in our street - with the distinct reminder "These are organic vegetables!" (The amused neighbours told me). 
The shallots were safe, though: we had entwisted them into long plaits, and they lasted the whole winter. Now the organic farmers offer them at the market, and that's why I don't plant them anymore. Besides, there is almost any place here, everywhere flowers are on the rampant. 
                Under the sun shade the gaze of son becomes speculative. "I would turn all this into a kitchen garden." 
I grow pale: "You can do that - when the garden belongs to you. But I will come at night and spook, I will point with pallidly glowing fingers to those prosaic heads of cabbage and hollowly ask: 'What have you done to my flowers?!?
That does not impress him because he already thinks out a perfect sprinkler system for long rows of planned beans and peas - for the "optimum gain". He reminds me of de La Quintine, who gave up jurisprudence to become Royal Gardener in Versailles. (Till now son always wanted to study law. But maybe he'll fall in love with a flower garden in advanced age?)  
As a compromise I now suggest an English cottage garden, where at least vegetable and flowers live harmoniously in the same bed, even to the benefit of both. 
And tell him of wartime (which, being born thank God later, I hadn't to experience), in which in England hungry people dug up the lanes to plant potatoes. And President Roosevelt recommended the Americans to lay out 'Victory gardens', and not to waste anything, and the American women really accomplished to earn over a million tons of vegetable, which was half of what the home front consumed. 
This impresses our son. 
But I am glad that nowadays we don't have any 'Victory' but only 'peace' gardens. Full of flowers.
Just beautiful.    

PS: In 2013 I have to add that son studied successfully law. And read Churchill's biography. The love of gardens will follow, I'm sure of that.