Wednesday 27 July 2016

Green fingers, brown plants

I have many interests, even birding allegedly. I have more interests than time, which means that by necessity they ebb and flow, sometimes even getting dropped for a period of time that might be measured in months, possibly years. That's happened to birding at the moment by the looks of things, but it is the summer, a traditionally quiet time of year. Many of my fellow patch-workers have reverted to insects and pan-listing, which is a very frequent summer pursuit for birders. I've instead gone back to my plants, which have been severely neglected over the past few years.

It all started back in Beckton, which is where we lived before we moved to Chateau L in Wanstead. It was a tiny house, two up two down, but it came with a fabulous bespoke conservatory on the back. Gradually I filled this with tropical plants, as well as a small greenhouse at the bottom of the garden, and I tended them all lovingly. When we moved a few years later, there was the small matter of what on earth to do with them all. Some I donated to Kew, for they were fairly rare and specialist in nature, and even today you can walk around the Palm House and see my name on some of the labels. The rest came with me to Wanstead, and frankly they were not the lucky ones, or at least not in the long run.

It started well. I built a huge greenhouse, the kind of greenhouse I had always coveted, and I stuffed it to the gills with amazing things. It had electricity, running water, heating, lights and a radio. It even had a stash of whisky and a tumbler. I spent many happy hours in it pottering away, listening to TMS and drinking illicitly. I raised seedlings, and grew the larger plants bigger. It was a haven, my own private kingdom and a place to retreat to after the craziness of the working day. And then gradually other things came along. Birds for one, and photography. Writing, travel, busier with the kids, busier at work. The interest in plants started to wane, and the plants themselves started to decline. Insect pests started to invade and multiply, and I lost a few specimen plants over a series of hard winters that were impossible to replace. I moved some of the survivors into the conservatory where I could monitor them more closely, but essentially I lost my love for growing plants and things went from bad to worse, a spiral of depression. I had to physically drag myself down to the greenhouse to water them, and the bugs took over. I went there less and less, actively finding reasons to do something else. I didn't set foot in there from October 2015 to February 2016. When in early spring I eventually ventured in it was carnage. Dried and curled foliage, dead plants in pot after pot of bone-dry soil. I sprinkled some water and beat a hasty retreat. I couldn't take it, couldn't cope with it.

 I am hoping these will germinate into some tropical Araucaria pines

Determination finally overcame apathy about six weeks ago. With various other things going on I needed a release that was close to home. Birding the patch would have been a bit radical (and it was June) so I rolled my sleeves up and got going. It was dreadful. I spent an entire weekend making repeated trips to the dump with full loads of what were once my pride and joy. As each bench was sorted through and severely thinned out, things began to take shape. Some plants were still OK, still hanging on. Huge numbers of scale insects, one of my constant scourges, meant that I had to cut off almost every leaf so that I was left with seemingly empty pots. Some plants were spared, cleaned and moved outside to recover, and with the greenhouse now almost empty I got on with the mucky job of cleaning it with the aid of a pressure washer.

Several weekends further on and now it sparkles. Some of the neglected plants have started growing again, and I've repopulated barer areas of it with plants from the house and some new purchases. Once again I enjoy going down there. It's clean and tidy with a sense of order. Remarkably there were still two bottles of whisky down there. Snails have eaten the labels but the spirit seems fine. I still need to replace the light bulb and sort a few bits and pieces out, but overall I am very happy. Last weekend I fixed the drainpipes on it and sawed off some substantial overhanging tree branches. It feels light, airy and positive, a good job done. Getting it sorted out has also spurred me on elsewhere in the garden and around the house. I've repotted a number of plants that had outgrown their containers, divided some that had grown offshoots, and made huge strides on the population of mealy bugs in the conservatory. Stressed plants are generally the first to get diseases or pests, with the new care regime they're flourishing and the bugs are losing the battle, having been winning for many seasons. I've bought new compost, new fertiliser, and the newly weeded and swept terrace now looks like a sub-tropical jungle that is fantastic to sit on and to walk through. Succulents that had withdrawn into themselves are now fleshing back out as they recover their moisture content, and the rustle of palms and bamboo, all pushing through new stems and leaves like nobody's business, is like music to my ears. Herbs have been replanted and the bougainvillea is flowering. I'm loving it.

The challenge of course is to keep the momentum going. In the current hot weather many of the plants need daily watering. Many are drought-tolerant, but nonetheless watering properly takes time - I'm getting up earlier to do it, consciously making the time. I do daily rounds looking for bugs, I'm dusting leaves, misting, and generally making sure everything remains good. As autumn starts however, how am I going to make sure that I continue to devote sufficient time? I do still want to go birding, to take photos, and to jump on airplanes. All of these things take time, but for now I'm back in business and I feel like I have all the time in the world.

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