Sunday, 29 November 2009

Kenya pictures

Nymphaea caerulea; Gloriosa superba; Aloe sp.; Calliandra sp.; Cadia purpurea

A garden in Kenya

While we were in Kenya we had the great pleasure of staying with my friend Peter Paterson at his home in Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Originally built by his father in the 1920s, the house is a classic rambling settler home, with rooms added as required to the original core. Its heart is a deep, shady veranda, from which one looks out over the garden and forest to one of the finest views of the Ngong Hills, framed by tall Croton trees.

The house and garden effectively occupy a clearing in the native forest - a valuable relict fragment of dry upland forest preserving habitat for wild plants (including Gloriosa superba), a rich diversity of birds and a few monkeys(though not the warthogs that pester other properties and ruin their lawns. In the past the garden was more formal, with English-style herbaceous borders, but Peter now prefers a less formal approach. The result is a charming mixture of planting, mostly of shrubs and trees, but with succulents, herbaceous plants and epiphytes throughout. In that climate, a huge range of temperate and subtropical plants will grow, but water is becoming scarcer and so things requiring irrigation are now avoided.

Among the shrubs flowering while we were there was a Calliandra, covered in pretty, powder-puff like clusters of pink flowers, and another legume, Cadia purpurea, whose most un-legume-like flowers open creamy-white and turn pink. In the ponds blue waterlilies (Nymphaea caerulea) were surrounded by Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and the floating fern Salvinia. This looks lovely with raindrops held on its water-repelling hairs, but both of these plants can be serious pests of waterways.In ecological contrast was a hedge of a native Aloe, flowering magnificently and being visited by dozens of sunbirds.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Sharpest tool in the shed

Just before we went away I visited Great Dixter and purchased one of the Turkish knives that Fergus imports, and recommends for the purpose of cutting back perennials in winter. It's a pretty vicious-looking weapon, with a finely serrated curved blade and a wooden handle. As the rain has temporarily stopped I got out into the garden this afternoon and put the knife to the test. As promised, it is superbly effective for cutting down dead stems and I can see that it will be a standard garden item from now on. Just have to watch that stems are the only things it cuts!

An excellent Chrysanthemum

We are enjoying the last bunch of the season of home-grown chrysanthemums. This cultivar, 'Lexy Red', has small, neat flowers of a rich brownish-red, a very warming autumn colour. They last for weeks. These are grown in pots in the polytunnel, as multi-stemmed plants from single cuttings potted in spring. Next year there should be plenty of cuttings so that I can try some outside.

Friday, 27 November 2009


Adrian and I have just returned from a much-needed holiday in East Africa, touring in Kenya and Tanzania, with a spell at the beach on the Tanzanian coast. Beaches are not my natural habitat, but this one was lovely, a classic sweep of palm-fringed white sand around a kingfisher-blue bay. It was hot, the sort of temperature I'd usually complain about, but the heat was moderated most of the time by a brisk onshore breeze, and if it was really too much one could be in the sea in thirty seconds to cool down.

November is usually the period of the kaskazi, the north-east monsoon that blows southwards and brings the short rains to East Africa - formerly it also brought the trading fleet of dhows from Arabian ports on their seasonal circulation around the Indian Ocean. This year it is late in coming, but the premonitions were evident one morning with a change in the wind direction and a brisk shower of rain. Falling on hot dry sand this released a heady draught of the most delicious of fragrances - petrichor, 'the scent of rain on dry earth.' In Africa, rain is the most precious of commodities, however contrary its appearance and abundance may be.

In 1919, Karen Blixen wrote to her mother 'I have a feeling that wherever I may be in the future, I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong.' There has indeed been rain at Ngong in recent days, and the countryside thereabouts is lush and green, but the kaskazi has yet to do its work and relieve the drought elsewhere in East Africa. 'My' village, Lerang'wa, on the northern slope of Kilimanjaro, remains desperately dry, a dustbowl where the cattle are mostly dead and the people very hungry.

Compare that to the situation here. Rain has fallen in Colesbourne almost every day in November, and is coming coldly down as I write. Everywhere is wet and squishy, and water is lying in the field below the cottage. Very beneficial for the aquifer no doubt, and we shall be glad of that next summer, but at the moment it is very unpleasant indeed.