Six have given their lives. Five survive. A spring jasmine clings to its life as it hugs the frame of the bathroom window shutter. It has grown thin and dehydrated, its future is uncertain. Two new arrivals radiate health. Can they survive? Can we keep them healthy and blooming? It’s a tricky business keeping plants alive in an apartment where nobody lives.
We had a vision of a balcony crammed with plants and flowers in our little piece of Paris. But which plants could survive on a balcony where they would often be neglected, go for long periods without water and be exposed to the elements with no one to care for them? Was it even possible without someone on call to water them?
We struck it lucky when we met Leon at the Paris flower market. Most of the stall owners are friendly enough, accustomed to tourists more interested in taking photos than buying, but Leon took up our challenge with gusto. This was the man, I thought, who could make our balcony thrive. He recommended the plants that can get by on very little – that need only sporadic watering and that can handle Paris’s erratic changes of temperature. Here is an overview of the ones that made it and the ones that didn’t.
The Spring Jasmine
The spring jasmine likes warmth and shelter. We have two. One at the back, mostly in the shade, and one in the middle of our balcony that has grown tremendously and wrapped its way around the bathroom window shutter so that it can no longer be closed. When I arrived in Paris a couple of days ago, I thought that this one was a gonner. Its vines had turned a crispy brown and the leaves that were still green hung from it, limp and lifeless. It was struggling with dehydration, having gone too long without water. Now after a big glug of H2O and some light pruning of the crispy bits, Spring Jasmine No. 2 has really perked up and its future is looking brighter. The spring jasmine typically flowers throughout summer, releasing that heady, sweet scent that I love. Ours are over-eager. This year, one started flowering after a warm spell in February only for the flowers to be killed off by a cold snap a week later.
The Summer Jasmine
This was one of the first plants we got, my mum bought it for us as a housewarming present. We trained it to run along the rail of the balcony, although it has its sights set higher and reaches longingly out towards the street. We have to keep tucking it back in. I was concerned because some of the leaves have turned a rusty red, like the leaves of trees in autumn, just before they fall. Leon explained that this is probably due to acidity in the soil and is not a reflection of the health of the plant. Anyway, it has new buds shooting out and seems to be reasonably happy. This one hasn’t flowered as much as I would have hoped. We’re going to feed it some fertilizer to see if that helps.
Prolific in the South of France, this plant seems to thrive on neglect. It needs very little water. In fact, we had to rescue it from drowning after a period of heavy rain in February. It seems to do well in winter too. Even after the cold that claimed the life of our Mandevilla, the Olenader seemed as perky as ever. Its deep pink flowers liven up the balcony but don’t give off any notable scent. Since this one seems to do so well, we’ve ordered a second one, this time with pale pink flowers, that we’ll pick up today.
The Orange Blossom
I’m not too sure of the name of this one – online I find something called Mock Orange Plant, which looks the same but I thought it was called Chinese Orange Blossom. It seems to do well kept on a part of our balcony that gets some sun but not too much. The little flowers of this bushy plant give off a beautiful citrusy fragrance. When we arrived recently, we had just missed its bloom and the naked buds are actually quite ugly. We’ll probably push it back into the corner and give our new oleander pride of place in front of the door.
These are the plants that are able to handle a life of neglect on a Paris terrace. Then there are those for which it was all too much…
In loving memory of…
There are bamboo plants everywhere in Paris – every restaurant terrace has them and they cheer up the doorstep of many a shop. This made us feel confident that we could keep the two plants we bought alive on our balcony. The mistake we made was keeping them in the sun, even though Leon warned us not to. The sun-exposed wall of the building next door has large fragments of paint peeling off and we wanted something tall and bushy to cover it. The poor bamboo dried out and finally died when it got too hot. Keep them in the shade and I think they’ll be fine.
I adore this plant. I love its large white flowers with their egg yolk centres. It has a subtle scent and seems to flower all throughout the year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do well in the cold. It made it through its first winter, a little unhappy but still alive, and spent a happy summer thereafter. The winter of 2017/18 however was too much for it. With repeated spells of sub-zero temperatures, our dear mandevilla gave up its life. They’re not too expensive and easy to get hold of so you could buy one to enjoy during the summer months, if you can accept the fact that it might not make it through the winter.
When it is healthy, rosemary is glossy, bushy and gives off that delicious earthy aroma. Its spikey green branches remind me of the Provencal countryside, and who doesn’t need a little bit of that in their life? Ours died because it didn’t get watered and the rain wasn’t enough to sustain it. We could try again now that we have discovered the life-giving wonders of self-watering plant pots but I haven’t seen any at the market yet this year.
In Part 2 of this mini urban-gardening series, I’ll give you my tips and lessons learnt for keeping plants alive in a part-time Paris home. For now, I’m off to enjoy my terrace where the sun has just arrived and the oleander is in bloom.