Down to earth in Switzerland : All my gardens part 9.

Our  flat in Switzerland was like posh student accommodation. Two very small bed rooms and an open plan room with a lot of glass, but no window sill to rest my plants upon.

I never realised how much I needed walls until I moved to Switzerland. Before that I had taken them for granted, but the Swiss are very modern, love glass and see little need for walls. If you couple this with a very high population density then you have dinning rooms that loom strangely in space, over each other. You can admire each other’s cooking, cutlery and even flatulence at disturbingly close quaters with total strangers. I couldn’t get used to such intimacy and did the same as we did in Brazil, blocked it out with plants.

We bought weeping  fig trees that loved the reflected heat of our “ wintergarten” and raced away. In the wonderful Swiss second hand store or “brokie” I found a set of shop shelves, with wheels which I loaded with devils ivy cuttings, filched spider plant babies and some geraniums abandoned at the end of the summer that I fed and costeted. They responded by flourishing and giving us some semblance of verdant privacy.

The flat had no balcony, but it did have a set of concrete steps up to the front door that were ours alone. As soon as our first winter was over, I started to buy plants and to move them outside. I started with yellow primroses from the coop and graduated, as the sun strengthened, to ivy leaved geraniums, that trailed red flowers over each open step. In the wonderful botanical garden I snipped a few modest cuttings of lemon, peppermint and rose scented geraniums, potted them up and nursed them and soon it was almost impossible to get up the step and into the flat for perfumed and coloured plants.

Watering became an obsession, as each plant was in a planter small enough to fit each individual step and one day of sunshine could dessicate  the whole pot.

We had been given very precise instructions when we rented the flat about what was allowed and what was “verboten”. Using the washing machine or showering after 10 at night was not allowed; hanging out washing was not allowed and shaking a table cloth out of the window was punishable by death. I was therefore very careful not to irritate my neighbours below by over watering and dripping on their doorstep. However after two years of squeezing more and more plants into our improbably small space, My Swiss neighbour actually volunteered to water my babies when we went away and started to talk to me!

At the top of the steps we put the tiniest BBQ known to man and if we each sat on a different step there was just space for us both to eat a chicken leg and for our cat, Bonkers the Magnificent ( who had survived Zambia, Kazakhstan and  six months quarantine in England) to survey his new, peaceful and eminently edible kingdom.



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All my Gardens- part 6 : Brazil – humming birds and high rise.

São Paulo Brazil has about 20 million inhabitants and from my first experience, only one tree.

I could see the tree from my apartment on the fifteenth floor. It was in a school yard a long way down and it was completely dwarfed by the high rises that surrounded it. São Paulo was the most relentlessly urban environment in which I have ever tried to grow a garden and yet a city more in need of green it would be hard to imagine.

When we arrived in our first apartment we stepped over the street children huddled together like puppies under blankets. When I looked out onto the balcony I felt I was falling into the most profound pit I had ever seen, as the earth that should have surrounded the building was being excavated to a terrifying depth, to build the sky scraper next door.

We didn’t stay long.

There were a few more trees near the next apartment we lived in, but they too were dwarfed into insignificance by the dimensions of the buildings.


From this second balcony I hung ferns in baskets and tried my best to make a wall of green with ficus trees, crotons and butterfly palms.  Bigonias are native to Brazil and an assortment of types gave colour and leaf shapes to my attempt to block out the view of the city.

Wildlife is more tenacious than we think however, and a feeder soon attracted a spectacular swallow tailed blue humming bird that had swapped a life sipping nectar from blossoms in the topical forest for a city life drinking sugar water from a plastic feeder. The blue grey taneger we had first met eating chilies in our Costa Rican garden appeared again in Brazil on this high rise balcony and even built a nest, as delicate as a wren’s, in an old plant pot. She even laid eggs, but three days of colossal thunderstorms sent apocalyptic lightening and biblical rain across the city and somewhere in the storm she was lost and her eggs were never hatched.


(I found her photo in an old scrap book)

In our local bar, where we sat at pavement tables shouting above the roar of the traffic, fruit bats picked ripe fruits from the few road side trees. They must have been able to smell when the fruit was ripe and the bats appeared in their hundreds for a few day only hanging clustered like ghouls with their large intelligent canine faces, observing us drinking cold beer far below.

On the edge of Sao Paulo is a wonderful place called Pedra Grande. Before the city grew into the chaotic megalopolis that it is today, an enlighten city father decided to protect the city’s watershed. In order to do this a very large chunk of Atlantic forest around a rock outcrop was spared the axe and to this day Paulistas can walk amongst the real tropical sky scrapers of giant trees and delight in three toed sloths, howler monkeys and magnificent toucans only a short drive from down town. This remnant of paradise was our salvation and we spent each weekend there buried in the deep green and the brilliant colours that make up a tropical forest.

To climb to the top of Pedra Grande is to understand the true shape of the world.

The walker emerges from the shade of the thick forest, scrambles onto the smooth granite boulders and the conurbation of 20 million souls erupts into view. The tens of thousands of sky scrapers bristle up into the smog hazed sky and then slope away into infinity, as the curvature of the planet is revealed in this awful, breathtaking monument to the human ability multiply and to build.

No balcony garden anywhere could compensate for that knowledge.

All my Gardens-Part5 England and almonds.

All my Gardens -Part 4: Costa Rica and the big world.

All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

All my Gardens: part 2 Garsington Manor and beyond.

In Cold Time (All my gardens :part 1)