mardi 28 décembre 2010

Can I buy a Christmas tree and be Green?

I bow to Lucy Siegle on ecological/green matters and I love her weekly column in the Observer; she seems to answer all those little niggling questions about ecology and it's great to have her detailed research for us 'trying our best to be green' public, so here's what she has to say about buying a Christmas tree.

Fake or real?

I'm talking about Christmas trees! We always used to have a real Xmas tree when I lived with my parents. Mum used to clear up the fallen needles on a daily basis (I think there was a bit of heavy sighing to accompany this task) and I was always sad to see the tree disappear on 12th night. When it came to choosing a tree for my own family, we opted for a fake because we lived in a small flat with a very small baby who ate anything that fell on the floor (and Xmas tree needles weren't part of his reccomended diet). So we've stuck with our cute fake (quite real looking tree) for 8 yrs now and it's still going strong although I can see signs of ageing this year (can't we all?).

I love the smell, the look and authenticity of real Christmas trees but when I see them lying in their hundreds on the road in January, waiting for the dustbin men, I wonder about the sense of cutting down loads of trees and then 2 weeks later throwing them away. I'm not taking the moral high ground here, I know the trees are replaced in the forests and grown for that very reason, and I know that some households buy trees with roots that can be replanted, and many trees are pulped and used for other purposes, so in effect they are recycled, and I know that in France many households buy a special bag in which to dispose their tree and the proceeds go to charity, and yes, is it more damaging to the environment when we'll eventually dispose of our fake tree, but still I'm wondering.....

Here's a photo of a whole load of trees that form part of our town's Christmas display. I must admit it looks great now it's all covered in snow, but again, I think these trees will also be thrown out by the end of January...

samedi 18 décembre 2010

Viva Espana!

Even the plants in the Alcazar had their own specially made containers.  This fern looks particularly happy.  Small versions of this pot are for sale in the souvenir shop.

Viva Espana!

Me and significant other took a trip to gorgeous Seville in November. Warm no-coat weather, bright sunshine made this city really come alive for us. What a vibrant wonderful place it is. And the mother of all gardens resides in this fair city - the Royal Palace of Alcazar. A historic, breathtaking spectacle....look at those photos!

The overwhelming sensation was of green and cool places to rest in what is the sweltering heat in summer. Many water gardens, spectacular fountains and so much symmetry. A beautiful fragrant white jasmine hedge, a moss covered folly in a fountain, unattainable except perhaps for a Queen? The sensation of being in another world, lost in green, the sheer beauty and vistas leading onto vistas, tree lined paths and sheer 'detente'.

vendredi 15 octobre 2010

Champs Elysees

A sunny, warm October day on the Champs Elysees.  The trees are half green, half burnt copper.  Gorgeous!

Hidden treasures

It's bulb time again; those things that look like onions (and not very appetising ones at that) which poke up like green swords and burst into life with a neon multicoloured explosion just when you are thoroughly tired of the grey winter garden.

It's time to plant, NOW!  Don't delay.

Bulbs look best in clumps so grab bundles of them in your local garden centre.  You don't need to look for anything 'hard', or complicated or exotic.  Even the simple daffodil brings joy to the eyes under the weak winter sun.  Bulbs are great value and you can even cut the flowers to display in the home.  There are few guarantees in the gardening business, but with bulbs you simply plant at the right time, add soil and water and off you go!  I hear of people planting bulbs upside down and still being successful!

Choose what you like best.  You have plenty of choice in colour.

Creamy white or orange or neon yellow daffodils.  Choose dwarf versions for windy terraces so they don't get blown over before they're even showing their flowers.

Hyacinths planted in a pot next to your door give off a delicious heady scent better than any perfume.  And the colours are great too - purples, bright pink, elegant white.....

Dainty snowdrops can even poke out of the snow.

And later, tulips in an array of shapes, sizes and colours bring us through to March and April.  Choose your palette and don't forget to plant in clumps for effect.  I've never liked that 'one flower per foot' attitude to gardening.  Tulip planting can wait until November but why wait?  Again,choose dwarf varieties for windy spots.  Tulips have a tendancy to droop all too easily.

Seek out a freely drained, relatively sunny position for best effect and a bulb likes to be buried no less than two times its own depth.  Planting advice tells us to take out and store tulip bulbs over the summer but I leave mine in the ground and they have been reliably coming back to see us every year since.  Bulb can also peep through other foilage like ivy in a windowbox or even on the lawn - again, plant in numbers and in clumps for best effect.

Some favourites:'February Silver', 'February Gold', 'Peeping Tom', 'Jack Snipe', narcissus 'Pipit' too, but don't get hung up on varieties; normally bulbs do what they say on the packet so choose colours that you like and off you go painting a wonderful winter picture.

mercredi 6 octobre 2010

Global warming produce

Acting on an urge to grow his own food, Mark Diacono purchased a 17 acre smallholding in Devon, (Otter Farm) England.  Banking on a changing climate and global warming, he decided to plant warmer-weather produce.  There's a long article about him on the link above.

In an article in the Observer, he gives his advice on how to grow remarkable fruit and vegetables:-

1.  Choosing what to grow: Make a wishlist.  Dream.  Forget limitations.  Let flavour be your guide.

2. Grow what you most like to eat: Follow that wishlist.  That's why we grow cherry tomatoes in the main - we love eating them, they are delicious and expensive in the shops.

3. Grow what you can't buy: Supermarket peaches, nectarines and apricots are picked early to keep them firm so their sugars stop developing.  They never have the taste of one just picked from the tree at the right moment.  Equally, asparagus, sweetcorn, peas and carrots taste sublime from the garden.

4. Grow something unexpected.  Mulberries, salsify and quinces don't do well in the supermarket system.  He also suggests a subterranean pear (yacon), sweet lemony oca or Egyptian walking onions.

5. Challenge your tastebuds.  If you don't like something in the shops, you might find the home grown version delicious.

6. Grow food that's expensive to buy (hence our cherry toms) or asparagus, purple broccoli.  You'll save plenty of money.

7. Think seasonally.  Don't ignore fruit, greens, salads and nuts from other parts of the year.

8. Quick return.  Enjoy quick and easy successes with cut and come again salad leaves for example to give you confidence.

9. Go for diversity.  Don't plant too much of one food.  Go for a broad range and a mixture of varities.  You'll find a big difference between varieties of the same fruit or veg.  Some might be easier to repeat next year for example.

10. Aesthetics.  Foster your own sense of the beautiful, give your patch importance.  Park your chair and have your morning coffee near your crops, feel the pride!

11. Get catalogues.  Look through all the catalogues you can find, go to someone who knows what they are doing (a neigbour for example).  Remember what you are reading is a menu, just that the service is a bit slower than in a restaurant!

12. Be realistic about your time.  Start slow, don't take on too much.  There's a lot of difference between four tomato plants and six crops.  Take on what you can cope with and add more crops when you get more experienced.

Thank you mark Diacono for those words of wisdom!  If you'd like some more of that wisdom in book form, buy 'Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No 4' from Amazon.

Scores on the doors after September

I can hardly believe it myself but the tomato plants are STILL going strong, looking a bit more brown and certainly they have stopped growing, but there are still producing tomatoes, incredible, what an investment!

The scores on the doors at the end of September are:

Small one                393
Medium one             33
Mummy                   385
Daddy                      44
*Unexpected one      52

*I planted some seeds way back in March/April from a packet of chilli peppers.  They grew nicely in the pots, I thinned them and planted them in the garden all over.  So we now have a good crop of chilli peppers?  No!  They turned out to be largeish cherry tomato plants instead!  What a surprise.  I watched them as they grew and knew that the leaves were a bit similar in both plants but then the leaves started to smell of tomatoes, and lo and behold little green tomatoes began to form. 

The great thing is that they have matured much later than the plants that we purchased, so we have a longer tomato season.

In the supermarket, a pack of organic cherry tomatoes costs nearly 3 Euros and there are about 20 in each pack.  Thus, we have saved around 300 Euros in tomato costs.  This is enormous!

Final scores on the doors in mid October I expect.  It's a close race....

mardi 7 septembre 2010

Potager de Bercy Parc

On our long walk from the Gare du Lyon via the Promenade Plantée, we ended up in my favourite park in Paris (so far) - Bercy Park next to Cour St Emillion.  I found wonderful sights there!  The vegetable garden (potager) was in full fruit and flower and there were some very pretty displays in the park itself too.  I'll attach some photos.

One of the things I like about this park compared to others in Paris is the small personal touches and quirky ideas like the cane eiffel tower in the water and the really pretty oyster shell mobile in the veg garden.  It feels like there is a human hand behind the gardens, as opposed to some of the very municipal parks with their not very inspired, all the same planting, with their perfect rows and regimented flowers and plants.  Somehow I can imagine someone sat in Bercy Park and drilled the holes in the shells or knotted together those canes.  The planting is also quite wild and meadow like in places.  Anyway, without furhter ado, here's the photos.

vendredi 3 septembre 2010

Scores on the doors after August

Returning from a week's holiday I was a little nervous to see if the weather had been really hot back in Paris and, as a result, if all the tomatoes had quickly ripened and fallen off. I hate wasted food!

Luckily (for us), the end of August was pretty dire in Paris so I was able to pick and use over 200 tomatoes which had just perfectly ripened. The scores have changed, Mum was racing ahead and has been overtaken by young whippersnapper - just, it's close - and he's still got more to come! Scores at the end of August:

Mum 223
Dad 21 (but they're big ones remember)
Young whippersnapper 225
Eldest whippersnapper 32

Eldest is sore and disappointed he's done so badly but he's pragmatic and hasn't yet refused to eat the winning produce. Oh the politics of home growing!

I still feel great that we haven't had to buy one single tomato this summer and the plants are still going strong.

jeudi 2 septembre 2010

Promenade Plantée - The Green Corridor

Now the summer has passed it's time to reflect on what we got up to, share experiences and reccomendations. We had quite a few visits from friends and family and I found that they all bring their unique preferences and ideas about what to do. I like this very much as it forces me to see my home city in a different light and explore new territories.

Diane came with the suggestion of exploring the 'Promenade Plantée' so we went to Gare du Lyon station, walked up to Avenue Daumesnil and searched for the secret staircase that would bring us up above the railway arches full of trendy shops. We found the staircase and climbed up to a wonderful green walkway with fantastic views onto the Haussmanian buildings. It felt like a secret garden!

Apparently the walk was the old railway line from Bastille to La Varenne and it's possible to walk all the way to the Bois de Vincennes (although we came off earlier than that).

As well as being thoughtfully planted with various themes - bamboo, lavender etc), it's also a great spot to see the architecture that we wouldn't normally notice from the street. At 76 Avenue Daumesnil there are 12 enormous statues which are copies of a Michelangelo sculpture - the Dying Slave. They are (slightly strangely) placed at the top of a residential building by the architect Manolo Nunez-Yanowsky. It must be very impressive to open your window to these fantastic torsos every day!

mercredi 11 août 2010

Well done Starbucks!

I was surprised to see that my local Starbucks branch was giving away stuff!  There was a basket of bags full of used coffee grains for anyone who wanted to take them for use as fertilizer on their plants.  I took two bags - one for a friend and I emptied the other one in my compost bin.  Coffee grains are great for making compost so THANK YOU Starbucks - great ecological idea!

lundi 9 août 2010


This is for you Lori: Mentha (commonly known as mint) is a genus of around 25 species. It's often found in wet or moist soil and has lance-shaped to rounded leaves that can be light to dark green, purple or blue-grey. Flowers appear in the summer at the end of the branches.

Mint smells great, it can be used in the kitchen or in cocktails (my favourite is with Pimms). Its flowers attract bees (which is a good thing except if you plant it near a terrace or near a child's playarea) and dries well and can be used in pot pourri. It's a perennial plant which means it comes back year after year.

It can be grown in a vegetable or herb garden, is useful for ground cover, good in rock gardens and can be used by the side of ponds to stabilise the muddy edges. It's also easy to propagate and cuttings will root at any time during the growing season. And it can be grown in shady spots or full sun.

So far, so good! The downside is that mint is super invasive. I have some but I didn't plant it myself - it's travelled under a hedge and under a wall from my neigbour's garden. You can restrict the spread of invasive types of mint by planting in deep containers and burying them in the soil or by growing in small beds, which restrict the roots. There are some types of mint that are less invasive than others, check the label when you buy. It's fine grown in containers of course although they will look bare in winter when it disappears.

I tend to chop the flowers to keep the leaves large and the branches less spindly.

In France, Corsican mint (mentha requienii) is popular for borders, paths and rock gardens. It has glossy bright green leaves with a strong peppermint smell which release a scent if they are brushed against, so it's nice at the edge of borders where you might brush against it.

The picture is one of my mint plants that have come from next door. It's looking a bit battered and moth eaten but it still has some good glossy leaves. The flowers are just beginning to form.

Another simple and easy to do at home display

I noticed this evergreen display at the Ralph Lauren shop near the Rue du Rivoli. Box and ivy, easy peasy, stays green forever as long as you trim it in October and spring and water it (not too much). The box can be purchased as little plants but they take a while to grow, however, if you purchase box in a ball or a shape, it is really expensive. I suppose, being Ralph Lauren, they don't really mind! This display should last and last and I find it really effective. You can plant spring bulbs such as mini daffodils or crocus so they they show through in February/March too. You can adapt this look for smaller windowboxes. I liked the green/deep blue contrast.


Picking my passport up at the British consulate, I passed by the Church in Madelene and I was surprised at their display: thousands of red and white flowers in hundreds of windowboxes covered the steps making a really amazing display. There were a lot of people taking photos. It's worth passing by this huge Church because they usually have a nice display of some sort.


So we did the obligatory summer visit to Disney when the cousins came to stay and although I don't really like it (for many reasons), I did notice that the gardeners had really taken a lot of care to make the place more attractive with plants, flowers absolutely everywhere. They must have an enormous budget. The planting was mainly traditional type flower beds - geraniums, petunias and so but the effect was really cheerful and attractive. I noticed this mid shade corner in the Disney studios which I thought was nicely done with the tall, gnarled trees and the contrasting low growing plants below.

jeudi 29 juillet 2010

Scores on the doors

Mum 27
Dad 0
Youngest 24
Eldest 25

We are so happy to have a constant supply of juicy cherry tomatoes. Every day I bring in a rich bounty - a large handful or two, which is really enough on a daily basis - this not only saves us money but gives us really tasty produce and the children are encouraged to eat them tenfold. Youngest was persuaded to eat 4 yesterday (after I had to cut them in two, I ask you - cutting cherry toms in two) but what the heck, here's hoping he'll get a taste for them!

This is a little windowledge I spotted in the 8th arr on Monday. There were two ledges the same, I thought the plants added a human touch to the prison like bars necessary for a ground floor flat in the middle of the city. See how a bit of simple greenery cheers up a dull windowledge.

vendredi 23 juillet 2010

Trim your basil!

If your basil plants are getting flowers on them - cut them off - now! Yes know they are pretty but you don't grow basil for the flowers. If you don't cut the flowers off and stop them developing, you won't get any more of those delicious leaves coming through. Get your scissors out! Snip snip.

lundi 19 juillet 2010

Tomato scores

Mum: 8 (cherry toms)
Dad: 0 (but there's lots of big juicy green ones waiting to ripen)
Young whippersnapper: 2 (cherry toms)
Older whippersnapper: 25 (very small early fruiting plant)

Watch this space for the latest scores! I suspect older whippersnapper might regret choosing an early fruiting plant as the others go on long into August, but we'll see)...........

Beautiful Brittany

Just back from a holiday in Brittany and, as usual, I was looking out for plants and gardens. In Morbihan, the south of Brittany, the thing I was struck by was that most houses and towns had immaculate gardens and were planted beautifully, sometimes in places where you wouldn't expect. There was some lovely imaginative municipal planting and people really seemd to take pride in their gardens or window boxes.

The overwhelming colours were pinks, purples, whites and the ubiquitous showy, puffy headed hydrangeas were absolutely everywhere. I'm thinking of doing more research into why this particular plant is associated with Brittany, it's really interesting as they seem to have adopted it as their very own regional plant. There are over 80 species of this plant and I thnk I've saw at least 10 - 15 of them on my travels. The colour of the flowers depends on the acidity of the soil. Acid soil with a ph of less than 5.5 produce blue flowers and alkaline soils with a higher ph produce pink flowers. In more neutral soils, colour can be influenced by the addition of a blueing compound. White flowers are not affected by ph. I saw gardens with 6 or 7 different types of hydrangeas and the colours were very mixed. I particularly like the deep pink, fucshia coloured flowers (like the 'Hamburg' hydrangeas). I even brought a necklace with three hydrangea petals suspended in glass in it to bring back happy memories!

Delphiniums were also elegantly situated everywhere, cheering up doorways, planted in twos or threes to great effect. Giant alliums were also visible, even in simple windowboxes - one or two is enough to make a lovely effect. There were also lots of tumbling pink roses everywhere, some were finishing their flowering season but others were still going strong softening the look of the harsh, sturdy (but beautiful) Brittany stone buildings.

As you'd expect from a seaside area, I found lots of grasses and ferns too. Difficult to take photos as I was mainly passing by in the car on the way to the sunny beaches, but I managed a few.

mardi 22 juin 2010

Pretty places

Walking in the Place Vendome yesterday, I was drawn down the street by this green display. It looks like simple ivy that's been left to trail and there are some white flowering plants on the top floors (jasmine or a clematis, I couldn't tell). It just goes to show that you don't need lots of colour and plants to make an effect. I found it very refreshing.

I also spotted this cute ceramic plantholder in Lafayette Maison. It's by Sia and is 30 Euros.

jeudi 17 juin 2010

Cherry picking

We had a great crop of cherries this year and gave bowls of them to neigbours, friends and teachers. My youngest absolutely loves them and pesters me to buy them at the market now. Ours are called 'coeur de pigeon' because they are small and shaped like a heart. My friend Lisa has a huge cherry tree that fruits large deep red cherries at the end of June and we'll be invited to pick our own. Looking forward to that. Once she found two policemen climbing up her wall and stealing their own bowl of cherries!

And on the vegetable front, we have produced our first tomatoes this year, 5 in all - hurrah! It's the Red Robin cherry tomato plant which is a dwarf variety - small and bushy, really suitable for a terrace or a pot. They are delicious and we're waiting with anticipation for the rest of our crop.

Pesky pests

Thanks to Annette who presented me with a great gift last night - two cute books 'Bugs, Slugs and Other Invades' and '50 way to Kill a Slug' with the inscription 'rock on Clairiere!' What a great friend.

Published by Hamlyn these mini sized books have amusing and practical solutions for all your pesky pest problems. I'm thinking of going on a slug hunt one night with the children so I can save what's left of my marigolds and basil plants. Take a look at these books if you want some humour and effective answers to your bug problems in the garden or on the terrace.