Category Archives: Balcony/ plants

A Swoop of Gulls

“I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”

Mrs. Bundy in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

 

Things got a little Hitchcock here a few days ago when the rose-gold evening sky above our apartment block suddenly filled with a swirling monochrome cloud of crows and gulls. Drawn by the cacophony of screeches and caws, we watched the aerial spectacle from the shelter of our balcony, wondering what on earth had caused such agitation.

A few days previously, on my way to work, I had seen one of the local ‘eccentrics’ in the nearby piazza, throwing handfuls of food high above his head, and a flock of perhaps thirty yellow-legged gulls swooping down to catch the scraps mid-air. Of course, I’m all for good karma, and feeding the birds, but the net result of our friend’s activity is that the place is now knee-deep in rotting vegetables and guano. I tried running round there in the evening and it was like an ice rink. Looking at the birds flocking in the sky above our balcony, I wondered if perhaps Birdman had changed the location of his avian restaurant and was serving up dinner in the garden beneath our flat.

After about half an hour things settled down and then I noticed that all of the neighbourhood crows had gathered on the roof of one of the buildings opposite. They were staring us down in quite the threatening manner, as if they’d really taken the whole ‘murder of crows’ collective noun idea to heart. We decided it might be best to go inside and close the doors for the evening.

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Whatever the hysterical flocking had been about, it seems that the gulls have won the turf wars for now. There has been an absence of crows, but the air has been thick with the wheezing, whinging calls of gull nestlings, hidden from view on the rooftops behind television aerials and satellite dishes. Until yesterday that is, when, as we were washing up after dinner, the whinging grew even louder and suddenly two young birds stuck their heads over the parapet of the house opposite.

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So that’s who’s been making all the noise.
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A quick, pre-flight preen

The parents wheeled off to sit in a tree on the other side of the garden, apparently finally sick of the noise and constant demands, while their offspring hopped and flapped up and down and contemplated the fifty-foot drop to the ground below. Then, without any pomp or ceremony – one, two – the youngsters launched themselves from the roof and circled away to try out their newly-discovered wings.

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Ready, steady…
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…Yawn. I’m going to have another think about this flying business. (Who knew gulls had such long tongues?)

 

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Borage and Bees on the Balcony

I made a mistake. I really should have paid more attention to detail, and in particular size, when it came to choosing which plants to grow on my mini-balcony this year. I blame the bees.

I discovered this lovely company www.realseeds.co.uk which sells heritage and heirloom vegetable seeds. Of course, I bought a selection, including bicolour sweetcorn, physalis, yellow podded mange-tout, cherry vine tomatoes and borage, forgetting for the time it took me to order that I do not possess acres of land around a country house, or even a substantial allotment, but rather a balcony that measures 1 metre by 2.5 metres. Ah well.

Still a week or so later, my package arrived and I commenced the process of planting seeds (lacking proper seed trays, I found plastic egg boxes make a good substitute) and soon our bedroom (the only sunny room in the apartment) was full of sprouting shoots and tiny leaves. The peas and the sweetcorn were the first to get going, unfurling and growing as fast as a  time-lapse video. The tomatoes followed suit, and the borage and finally, after a delay of two weeks, even the physalis started to show.

That was a couple of months ago. Since then, the sweetcorn has grown man-sized, although whether we will actually get any cobs remains to be seen. Still, its foliage is beautiful, waving in the Roman sun like translucent green ribbons trailed by a rhythmic gymnast. The mange-tout didn’t make it, victim of a minor heatwave when I was away for a few days. The tomatoes are just starting to fruit and the physalis are very slowly growing a new leaf every week or so. But the borage…

I had read about borage and it sounded interesting firstly because it is a salad flower, so I thought it might be entertaining to pretty up our side dishes with some edible blooms. Secondly, it is known for attracting bees – one of its common names is bee-bread –  and considering the current plight of our melliferous friends, I thought supplying them with dinner if they happened to be in the area would be the decent thing to do.

(In the UK, urban bee keeping is apparently a new trend, but a lack of proper bee-hive maintenance has been causing a few alarms in some town centres. Even I can see that trying to keep an entire hive on the balcony might be a little over the top, so I thought a few borage plants would be a reasonable substitute.)

While reading about borage I noted that you could do fun things like this with the flowers…

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Borage flower ice cubes: just add a splash of your favourite tipple
…as well as add them to salads. The flowers are so small and delicate I assumed the plant they grew on would also be of a reasonably diminutive scale. I happily planted out my many seedlings in and around my existing plants: under the bougainvillea, around the hibiscus, in between the rosemary and the marigolds. And they grew.

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Noticing the rapidly diminishing space in my pots, I tried a recipe for young borage leaves, which you can fry up in a pan with some oil and a little garlic. The taste is delicious, but even the young leaves have a hairy surface which doesn’t entirely disintegrate with cooking. Appealing as the flavour was, I couldn’t get rid of the sensation that I was eating fried fibre-glass. So I let the plants continue to grow.

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As the stalks grew taller and the leaves grew wider, and we started to lose the light in our once sunny bedroom, I thought I had better thin a few of the plants out, but not too many – I was doing this for the bees, remember. Still no flowers appeared.  The large, bristly leaves started to scratch at the windows at night in a most disconcerting way but I let them continue to grow. Remember the bees! Finally, as the vegetation began to reach prehistoric stature, and all available space in my vases and containers had been consumed, a spray of those tiny, fragile flowers uncurled and opened up at the top of each stem,  utterly out of proportion with the rest of the plant. And finally today, I saw bees.

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There can’t be many bees in my immediate neighbourhood of traffic-heavy roads and densely constructed, eight-storey apartment blocks, but there are some. And for the next few weeks at least, they are welcome to have their meals on my balcony.

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(In 2013, the EU voted to ban the use of bee-harming pesticides neonicotinoids. However, a submission has been made to the UK government asking to lift the ban this autumn. Campaign group 38 Degrees has called on the Secretary of State not to lift the ban. You can sign the petition at www.speakout.38degrees.org.uk)

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Who knew crickets liked Shakespeare?

Back at work and adjusting to city life after five weeks of being outdoors and at one with the elements in Greece. The balcony, despite the best intentions of a neighbour, had shrivelled to a brown tangle of dried-out twigs. I thought it was done for. Yet, with a generous daily dousing of water, the lantana is back in flower, the hibiscus unfurling new blossoms and the clematis clearly thinks it is spring all over again. The gecko looks happier now he has some foliage to hide in once more. The only plant that has continued its advances unaffected by any changes in temperature or atmospheric conditions it seems, is the chili-monster. What am I going to do with yet another kilo of chilli peppers?

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At school the students all returned (eventually) tanned and, for the most part, smiling and happy. The weather remains hot and very humid and this has contributed to a marked increase in the population of another inhabitant of the school – the common black cricket. Last Monday I began the day by chasing out sixteen of these beauties from my classroom.

Common black cricket or field cricket
Common black cricket Gryllus assimilis

Followed by another ten or so an hour later. While I believe that learning should be for everyone, these chaps are quite disruptive, breaking out into ear-splitting song at any inopportune moment during my lesson. Threats of staying in at break or visits to the principal have no effect on them. Plus, my students (who all seem to live in hermetically sealed apartments far away from any contact with earth, plants or wildlife) only have to see one of these Gryllus assimilis scuttling away behind the skirting board to set up such a cacophony of shrieks and screams you’d think I’d introduced a slavering grizzly bear into the room. So I adopt my most sensible, Victorian governess tone of voice while explaining that these creatures are completely harmless and they perform a useful job of eating other annoying flies and insects.

I’m sure, when the weather cools, they will disappear. And at least I had some sort of response – albeit high-pitched and musical – when I asked the class, ‘Which Shakespearean character could hear “the owl scream and the crickets cry?”‘

(Gryllus replied correctly by the way – turns out he’s a good student after all. So, what was his answer?)

Dawn soundscapes – home and away

No sooner had I started this blog than it was time to go to England to catch up with family and friends. My folks live in Winchester which, when viewed with the long lens of living abroad, seems to be the epitome of Englishness (albeit a certain kind of Enid Blyton, lashings of ginger beer Englishness). It makes a lovely break and this time the glorious weather meant much time spent in the garden.

Details from the garden

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I always look forward to waking up in Winchester. In summer, the dawn light fades in gradually behind the curtains and the backdrop is silence. Then the chuckle and the footballer’s rattle of the resident magpie family greeting each other after the night, their claws clicking and hopping across the roof. As the light grows stronger the repetitive, triangular call of a woodpigeon echoes out from the apple tree, hushed by the whisper of a passing shower of soft rain. Only much later do the human inhabitants of the street start to add their own chorus to the soundscape.

This morning, waking after a late flight home, there was no doubt I was back in Rome. One needle of light pierces the darkness through the tightly pulled shutters. A hammering begins followed by the teeth-gritting whine of a circular saw. It’s 7 am. Down in the street Franco is unlocking his taxi and enjoying a thunderous conversation with the man up on the sixth floor who has shuffled out onto his balcony to smoke his first cigarette of the day. Metal blinds rumble like trains as they are rolled up from the ground in front of bars and shop windows. Traffic is already humming past on the main road while a car horn is pressed once, twice, eight times, victim of double parking and late for work. As the hour progresses there are car alarms, building alarms and moped after moped buzzing away or circling the street like angry hornets disturbed from the nest.

And yet, underneath all of this human cacophony, I smile when I hear the brisk, urgent calls of the gang of sparrows who swoop down on my balcony for a moment to quarrel amongst the hibiscus. A plumped up pigeon coos vainly from the window ledge while a hooded crow shouts him down from the rooftop forest of aerials and antennas. The sad arias of caged canaries grow in strength with the sun as it reaches across the building, warming their trapped bodies and reminding them of a world they have never known.

A diminutive balcony, large with colour and life

IMG_1680 My balcony, tiny though it might be, brings me many moments of calm and pleasure. Now it’s the holidays, I have time to appreciate it during the day too. Three or four Small White (Pieris rapae) butterflies flutter by on an hourly basis, attracted to the vibrant flowers of the Lantana Camara – rich red turning to orange, mixed with other varieties in pink, cream and yellow. The chili plant is weighed down anew with its daggers of fiery fruit. I love the way they change from black to green to scarlet. In the UK I remember having to pollinate my chili plants by hand using a tiny paint brush; here an army of tiny hoverflies does the job for me. IMG_1685 Now that school lunches are finally off the menu for a couple of months, I can pick and eat the herbs I’ve grown: thyme and lemon thyme in salad; basil scattered over sweet baby tomatoes; rosemary on roast potatoes; sage for ravioli in butter; and mint with chili mixed into grated courgettes with lemon and oil. A friend has sent me a beautiful book entitled The Edible Balcony. Next year I will be growing the vegetables too. My favourite moment on my balcony is watering the plants. Barefoot in the Roman heat, I savour the cool water in-between my toes as it overflows from the soil and containers or I (deliberately) miss my target. Very often I spy the large gecko who usually hides behind the empty flower pots but occasionally creeps out to sit among the foliage; he scuttles away as soon as a drop of water falls on him.