Tag Archives: Insects

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?)

Postcard from a Greek Island #2 – Nature in all her contrasts

The sun descends in a wash of fiery orange and pink while the sea turns violet and lavender, laying itself out in complement to its reflection above. A stillness falls over the bay, the air holding its breath for what is coming next. We have just finished dinner when a few spots of water darken the balcony floor. Looking up I see heavy clouds are covering the stars and then the sky flashes white. The wind picks up and thunder grumbles to the north. The spots become more frequent and there’s barely time to bring in the drying beach towels before the storm is upon us. Bolt after bolt of lightning thrown down from sky to sea, Zeus and Hephaestus battling it out, animating the scene like the flickering images of an old ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ zoetrope. The noise is terrifying, explosions that force the ear drum inwards while the rain rages on. Now the bay is obscured, just a grey sheet of water, a curtain pulled across . I know there are several sailing boats anchored out there, somewhere: half an hour ago there’d been champagne corks and music. I am very glad to be on land, even if the rain is now creeping under the balcony doors and pooling in various and unexpected areas of the apartment. The roads have turned to rivers, pouring down the slope past our window and still there is no diminishment. Occasionally the clouds swirl apart to reveal a pallid, gibbous moon, but she is not invited tonight, rapidly extinguished by their dark bat wings.

Sunset from the balcony earlier in the evening
Sunset from the balcony earlier in the evening
Lightning splits the sky in two
Then lightning splits the sky in two

Finally, after longer than was diverting, the storm retreats. Rolls of thunder continue and skittering sheets of lightning still illuminate the cloud masses, but they are being pulled apart now, and one by one the stars return.

The next morning, the air is fresh and through the village echoes the sound of water being swept away and neighbours comparing notes on damage and flooding. Some hazy clouds have lingered and at the beach the sea licks contritely at my calves as I wade along the shore.

as if the storm never happened. View from Sigri surf centre
As if the storm never happened. View from Sigri surf centre the next morning.

Later we cycle north up the coast, taking the road that leads inland before turning east back to the sea. Here there are isolated villas with gardens irrigated to a bright verdant green, incongruous against the island’s otherwise terra-cotta landscape.

The Black-eared Wheatear is a common sight in Sigri
The Black-eared Wheatear is a common sight in Sigri

Wheatears perch on rocks and low electricity lines. Swallows careen across an emerald field of clover, purple flowers just coming into bloom. I stop to investigate but am distracted by a large green stick that hops off the sprig I have plucked. I look closer and see orange eyes and alien forked head, body designed to mimic exactly a large blade of grass. I watch as this small, incredible creature finally tires of my gaze and jumps back into the mass of plants: an instantly invisible phasmid.

The disguise works better in a field of grass
The disguise works better in a field of grass

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.