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.



© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




“Ladybird, ladybird stay safe at home …”

The ladybirds are waking up and my sunny bedroom window sill is alive with slowly trundling spotted bugs. They crawl into houses to overwinter and do no harm in sheltered nooks, hibernating and waiting for spring. They apparently exude a scent when they find a suitable spot to encourage others to join them in a winter snuggle and this smell lasts over a year, guiding them back the following autumn.

It can’t be heat that wakes them up as, it is colder now than it has been all year, so it must be day length, or maybe they can count the time spent in hibernation somehow (tiny ladybird watches on their tiny jointed legs?)

My house guests are harlequin ladybirds who were introduced to control aphids. They have brown legs and come in an astonishing variety of patterns. Some think they should be killed as aliens, but as I can’t resist any wildlife that manages to find a home in my home, so I decided to treat them instead. I have an overwintering geranium covered in aphids and I thought they would make the perfect wake up meal for the ladybirds.

04331262-2C84-46C4-B4BE-50E42E4F17DF.jpegThe first ladybird ate the first aphid she encountered and then sat on the stem in digestive satisfaction. The second, third and fourth ladybirds however, ignored the aphids entirely and determinedly fell from the geranium back onto the window sill over and over again. I assume the desire to fly away to a new home is stronger than hunger at this stage.

Normally I would gather them up and let them fly out of the window to take their chances at the start of spring. However it will be – 12 here for about the next week each night, so they are definitely safer here on the warm window sill. They might be longing to “fly away home”, but for now home is where the heat is!





Winter’s grip seems relentless.

After months and months of torrential rain, a few spring flowers tentatively appeared and then the real cold descended and stunned them into immobility. Shrunk by hard frosts, thin snow and polar days they lie flattened across frozen earth. Blackbirds fluffed to twice their normal size stab at apples from the supermarket and only the sedums are unmoved by the cold, waiting unperturbed in their perfect symmetry for the next season.


Kaskhstan. All My Gardens Part 8

The strangest place I have ever tried to garden was Kazakhstan.

Our first apartment had two balconies. The first faced into the courtyard of the concrete blocks . It had a washing line and you could glimpse the steppe from the top floor as it rolled out, brown and flat to distant Russia. I realised that growing things here would be difficult when after a couple of seeringly  hot months my washing froze to cardboard cutout stiffness over night.

The other balcony was boxed in with wooden sides and glass. On the shelves there were still pickles and jams, left by some previous tenant, making use of the cold space to store carefully preserved food, as everyone used to do before the supermarkets came. There was no window sill for plants, but there was an extraordinary view of the Tian Shan mountains . This was Almaty, at the far south east tip of Kazakhstan, the old capital and the most stunningly located city sprawling between the snow capped mountains linked to the Himalayas in the south and the central Asian steppe to the north.

When I lived there remnants of the former USSR were every where, but so too was the newly independent Kazakhstan rediscovering its nomadic and Muslim roots.

In our first year we managed to grow nothing, but the school had a remnant apple orchard, which was so perfumed and perfect in the spring it made me cry. Almaty is supposed to be named after the father of apples and the genetic parent of all apple trees does apparently originate in the country.

Bonkers the magnificent came with us from Zambia and after a lot of bribery and some crying, we got him through customs in one piece. He hated the apartment, there were no chameleons to chase and indoor life did not suit him. We put him on a cat lead and took him to the orchard, but he collapsed as though his back was  broken and then escaped up a tree, only to be retrieved with a broom.

We found another apartment in the centre of the city . It had another boxed in balcony full of pickles under which trams rattled and shuddered. This was in the same street as the magnificent state opera house, which broadcast its music for free on summer evening to those who could not afford the tickets to the plush boxes, but who could listen to the outstanding performance on the street, cooled by the great glaciers fed fountains .  Bonkers preferred this apartment, as the balcony that faced the courtyard was laticed with bird cage wrought iron and he could catch a breeze while watching the bats plunge out of the plane trees and listen frustratedly to the scops owls calling in the summer time.

He was never allowed out, as he would not have found his way back up to our top floor home and there were rats bigger than he was by the bins. The rats grew plump on the bread left out by my neighbours who considered it a sin to throw bread away and so it was left carefully off the floor for whoever, or what ever may need it.

To assuage his terrible yowling I ocassionally carried him down to the courtyard, where he would be admired by neighbours who would bring their own imprisoned moggies to their own windows to be introduced in a mixture of Russian, Kazakh, English and German.

On the bird cage balcony I grew red geraniums; hung spider plants and tradescantia and grew the best sweet peas ever, trailing up the iron work until the summer heat burnt them off . French marigolds grew well and a jasmine reminded me of Zambia and of Greece. Everything had to come in before the temperatures crashed for the long cold winter, the double glazing closed and the city wide heating  turned our sunny kitchen into a greenhouse.

I remember tiny bunches of the first real  flowers from the steppe: miniture  tulips and irises sold by old ladies infront of the cathedral on my birthday and wishing I could explore more of the steppe myself, and feeling the cold air falling from the mountains on my back and wishing I could really explore them too.

We explored the balcony and watched an extraordinary city instead.





Carnival with forsythia.

It’s Shrove Tuesday and I forgot to make pancakes.

After an interminable month of grey skies and rain, the sun appeared for a whole, wonderful ice cold day. Greenfinches appeared in the birch tree, a few field fare burbled over and two loud ravens called across the blue sky, their heavy dark wings beating the air. In a thermal of heat, red kites and buzzards spiralled up, mewing and fighting in a confusion of lust and aggression.

Shrove Tuesday is the day to use up all rich foods before the abstinence of lent and the only memory we have of it in Britain is flipping pancakes in a village race.

In other countries it is part of carnival ; that hedonistic party before the forty days and forty nights of lent that prepared the faithful for Easter.

In my current neck of the woods (Basel ) carnival  is an oddly irreligious scaring away of the spirits of winter with three beautiful days of grotesque, frightening masks, discordant music, drums and solemn drunkenness .

My small contribution to frightening away the winter is to bring my first branches of forsythia into the house and watch them slowly bloom in the warmth of sunshine and firelight.


Older than liverspots.


Sometimes you glimpse another time in an unexpected place. On the dripping rock foundation of a fake castle, glorifying a fictitious romantic past I spotted liverworts: very flat; very green and really very old.
These simple and strange life forms predate all vascular plants by millions of years, have no internal means of transporting food and survive on the whim of a raindrop. Flat and granular against the rock, they glisten in their encasing film of water, surviving all human attempts at immortality,  to out live us all in a single sheet of slime.





Before my first Christmas in Switzerland I went looking for mistletoe to add to the holy and the ivy of a traditional English winter decoration.

I was living in the suburbs and found ivy easily enough and holly in a nearby copse of trees , but no mistletoe. For me mistletoe is a mystical Druidic thing that loves apples trees, needs a golden scycle to cut it and will inspire strangers to kiss beneath it and is absolutely essential for Christmas.

In the copse  of conifers and hornbeam behind our apartment I found tantalising snippets of mistletoe lying on the ground; solitary twigs of two simple leaves and the odd pale white berry.  I looked up into the trees, searching for the familiar ball shape of a mistletoe plant suspended from a branch, but there was nothing. Maybe someone had been here collecting before me and these leaves were their debris.

Eventually I was reduced to buying an over priced  sprig in a local  florists, but I wondered where they had found it, so far from apple trees.

And then came the New Year storms: howling gales ripping off branches and uprooting whole trees. In the felled conifers were hundreds of little mistletoe plants, living their parasitic lives amongst the thick evergreen branches quite hidden to my ignorant eyes. It had never said in my English botany books that mistletoe lived in pine trees and yet here was the abundant proof, littered on the forest floor.

This week in France, the storms came again and the woods are crashed with fallen limbs and boughs, but I was still amazed to see the mistletoe in the unexpected embrace of the felled pine tree. Such odd, but comfortable bed fellows!


All my Gardens part 7 : Zambia .

A77E0D1E-4FB5-4EC7-B121-BAC78324D5BCIn my memory Zambia was soft dust, jacaranda trees, chameleons and a black and white cat.

We took a job in Africa to escape the soul crushing megalopolis of Sao Paulo  in Brazil. It was like moving from Mars to the moon. We still had work and a home and books, but nothing else was the same.

Our little African house came with a tiny garden of overhanging bougainvilleas around enough lawn to sling a hammock across and a patio with a rusting metal table and chairs, behind a lattice work of alternate bricks held up by a tenacious and magnificent jasmine plant.

We lived in the capital , but even  in the city there were stars such I had never seen since camping in Costa Rica and the heavens seemed very close indeed. Every Saturday we could hear beautiful music and pick up trucks passed by crammed with traditionally dressed Zambians singing. Eventually I understood that these were funerals.

There was a small vegetable garden and the bright orange soil splashed the whitewashed wall after the rains. We tried hard to grow things, but despite the sun and the rains nothing flourished and we began to understand how infertile tropical soils can be.

Amongst the pepper plants we found a chameleon. Watching it was like regarding the inhabitants of another planet as it’s golf ball eyes rotated to watch us slowly and its pincher hands  clasped and climbed in an hallucinary dream.

Bonkers the cat was obsessed with the chameleons. He owed his life to my worry about snakes and spiders. I had insisted that a Cat would be essential to protect us and so he appeared to keep us safe. I asked if anyone had a cat with kittens and if so could I have a short haired, female, black cat, if possible. A month later a black and white, long haired male kitten was given to me in an ornate bird cage. He was small enough to sit in my hand and we fell in love.

Bonkers ran up curtains, fell off and broke his leg. He burnt his whiskers on the embaula. He crawled into the engine of a car and got badly run over. Our extraordinary Zambian vet brought him back from the brink over and over again and Bonkers the Magnificent survived .

There were excellent market gardens around Lusaka and trays of bedding lobilia, zinnias , begonias and candy tuft could be bought to bring a bygone  suburban England to this lovely, lush country.

We walked to work each day and the enormous road side trees carefully planted for beauty rained down purple, gold and cherry coloured petals onto the quiet side walks.

In our garden the jasmine was loaded with so many flowers for a few months that it pulled down the wall and we could reach the avocados and mango’s shining in the foliage beyond, while Bonkers stalked the chameleons and the singing trucks drove by.


If any one is bored on a cold Sunday these are parts 1-6 of All my Gardens:

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

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)





The Great Piece of Turf

My garden is now officially shut. I glimpse it darkly as I feed the morning birds and sense it fleetingly as I peel the potatoes for dinner, but the rest is darkness between work.

So I turn again to representations of the green I cannot see on  a work day in November and the most wonderful of all is Albrecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf.

This water colour was painted in 1503 in Germany and the detail and precision surpasses any digital photo I have ever seen. Dürer is more often remembered for the remarkably messianic self portraits of his undeniably commanding and attractive face; but this small picture contains the whole natural world in all its multifarious, magnificent complexity. Here are  the grasses; the lace edged tansy leaf; the seeding dandelion flowers and fleshy clasping plantain leaves. Here is the view from the ground, the vole’s eye view; an unnervingly clear eyed botanist’s view, who understood how marvelously interlinked and nuanced the living world is and reproduced it in this unassuming  slice of perfection for ever.81927DFF-8E14-4E40-A94E-C699DEF4AF41



“…later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease.”

Keats “ Ode to  Autumn” must have been inspired by a day like today. Sunshine has spun out so many  flowers, that it seems impossible cold weather will ever destroy them and frost crisp them: but it will.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…