Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Rabbit in the headlights

The sun is out today and I just didn't know which way to turn on returning from the school run.  Paralysed by choices.

Jobs to do included:

  • Smashing up concrete in hardstanding area to finish paving
  • digging out remaining wisteria at front of house and widening the bed to put my Aloha rose in
  • finishing building brick wall for waterbutt stand and raised path slabs
  • stripping and painting the front door
  • tidying and insulating the greenhouse
  • working at the allotment
  • attacking another garden border and getting it ready for spring
  • make a start on replacing the fence at the side of the house

Decided to go for planty jobs as I'd really like to get all my Christmas present roses in the ground before the end of the month.  So, went out to the shed with the full intention of collecting up tools for the wisteria removal task.

But you know how it is.

Thought I'd just pot on my hydrangea cutting first... which took me to the greenhouse.  Then passed the other two roses awaiting homes and pondered where to put those....then decided to weed a patch of border to let my cowslips breathe... then decided to move them to make a place for my Savoy Hotel rose and put it in...then planted Queen of Sweden rose in the main border.... then decided that today was actually the day to redesign the lawn.

Ignore the bit that looks like it's missing - when I took this, I hadn't yet got round to moving the turf from my edging activities, and it's just a heap waiting to be shifted.  Neither had I finished the edging entirely!

Ever since I made the border, there's always been an annoying narrow bit of grass behind the apple tree which is impossible to mow (whose stupid design was that then?) and the curved lawn 'path' which leads to the main lawn area is wider the the mower and generally annoying - especially the humped bit where it abuts an old cherry tree stump. Have you ever tried to use a manual vintage qualcast at a 45 degree angle? It involves lots of swearing and lumps of missing turf, put it that way.  The ultimate plan is to make a slab and scree path to replace the grassy one, so that I don't have to mow it at all, but not quite sure when that project will get done, so the grass can remain for now.

So..... out with the hosepipe to demarcate a new curvy border edge and more planting space. Cue evil cackle. Hahahahaha.  It isn't really eating into the large lawn area so won't shrink the playing space too much.  Hosepipes are brilliant for drawing with when you're trying to visualise a curvy lawn shape as you can just keep moving them around until you're happy with the general line of things.

I'm now going to zoom back outside into the sunshine to crack on with my half moon edger to get that grass gone!  Bigger borders for a happier gardener....  Not bad considering the whole damn thing was wall to wall lawn when we moved here.  Needless to say, I'm not a turf queen - I'd have the lot out and turned over to cultivation left to my own devices!

But this is my idea of gardening - live with your patch, and gradually chip away at it to get it to where the fancy takes you.  Mine evolves into more planting space with each passing year.  Suits me fine.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Indoor gardening with Pinterest

Within my own Apple product-besotted family, I am renowned as something of a luddite.  It has come as a surprise to all (including me) that since I've started blogging, I've started joining bits of the virtual puzzle together via Facebook, Twitter, and now... Pinterest.  Except that Pinterest is the most fun because it's all about bookmarking things you like via images.  It's a really useful way to re-find great ideas which you spot on various trawls through the internet,  but always struggle to locate when you want to show them to someone else, two months later.

Also, quite by accident, I've found Pinterest to be a virtual way of seeing which flowers people really seem to go for.  Every day my email gives me multiple messages saying that people have re-pinned pictures of  Tithonia rotundifolia ' Torch', Cleome hassleriana 'Helen Campbell' and Campanula glomerata var. 'Superba' into their own scrapbooks.  A great indicator of which blooms might have impact on a cut flower stall  (not sure if the campanula will cut well, but the other two certainly will), so have ordered seeds of cleome and tithonia on the strength of this very positive response!

The internet is like browsing seed catalogues, gardening, craft and DIY books all in one place.  It's a great time fritterer, but sometimes the minutes or hours spent plotting, dreaming and scheming about gardening do come to life in the off-line world.  While it is grey and still too wet underfoot to garden, I'm harvesting ideas and using Pinterest as my store cupboard for this season's dreams.

If you haven't visited yet, take a peek at my scrapbook here:

or better still, start making your own!

Monday, 28 January 2013

First crop eaten

The mung beans are no more - well, not in an undigested state anyhow.  Very tasty they were too. "Like peas but more dusty" was my youngest son's verdict.  Empty plate though.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

New arrivals

Returned from shopping this morning to find a huge, heavy parcel waiting for me and a quizzical stare from my husband.  Inside the large box lay carrier bags of dahlia bulbs, bulging paper sacks of gladioli, plastic plant carriers of baby Christmas Box (Sarcococca humilis) and white Veronica Spicata 'Icicle'.

I had to buy the Sarcococca  having walked past a large planting of them near Windsor Castle in early January and being completely bowled over by their fantastic scent.  I have one in my garden already but it has been a sickly specimen from the day it arrived, both in drab leaf colour and vigour, and the perfume has never been much to speak of.  So, having witnessed this shrub in its full glory, I thought it was time to invest in fresh stock and to reap the perfumed reward. As I have five baby ones to find homes for, I plan to put a group in the narrow border near the back door so that I can enjoy their scent when I go out in winters to come.

As for my 30 dahlia tubers, I plan to home them in some well-enriched soil this year and to pinch them out regularly to emulate the super flowery specimens I see at the allotment and in the Sarah Raven catalogue - they promise so much for the cutting garden,  I hope that this will be the year that they flourish.

Can't wait til I have photos to link to future posts like this - in my head I can see my an abundance on my market stall so will have to keep you updated!

Friday, 25 January 2013

Veg Plotting: Salad Days 2013: Propagated Peas

Veg Plotting: Salad Days 2013: Propagated Peas

Check out how other people are doing with the 52 week salad challenge.

Saturday Update - 26th January

As I'm running out of space in the porch and sound of thawing, dripping snow surrounds me, thought I would take a punt on the greenhouse border being able to support a sowing of salad seeds.  Will find out if this is the case over the next few weeks.  Sowed short rows of 'Little Gem' lettuce, some seeds I collected from the garden last year - not sure if they came from komatsuna or a green mustard, lambs lettuce ' Elan' and some radishes which I got from the Heritage Seed Library. 

Am quite impressed that I'm managing to keep up the weekly sowing schedule so far.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Snow gardening

Sometimes you are given gifts which you like, but are not sure you will ever find a use for.  Such was my feeling when I was handed a pair of furry boot toppers by my mother-in-law at Christmas.  Any doubts about their usefulness have now been banished and they have proved effective snow excluders atop my walking boots for the past week.  Very useful for sledging and snow digging.

Armed with my spade and sweeping brush, I have just come in from clearing snow from shrubs - just as well I know my garden like the back of my hand so I can identify the lumpy forms of baby ones hidden in the thick snow.  My hydrangea heads have stood well through the winter, but this morning resembled heavy white footballs and threatened imminent snappage to their meagre branches. As I pinged the snow off, you could almost hear the plant sigh with relief as it boinged back into a more upright position.

As for the cold frame, it has taken on a whole new meaning:

It looks more like a cool box for a massive party than a nurturing place for plants.  However, hollyhocks, ammi majus and sweet peas still lurk comfortably within.  I know because I cleared the snow off the top and checked up on them.  I suppose the snow provides insulation against the cold and protects them slightly. I'm so impressed by the durability of these little annuals though, I think they deserve pride of place in the garden come March - maybe I should make a 'snow heroes' border?  I don't think any of their outdoor-sown contemporaries will emerge to keep them company. Indeed, as far as I can see, outdoor September sowings were a complete washout.  This year I'm tempted to stick to autumn sowing only under cover, or perhaps I should experiment with sowing earlier in September than I did in 2012.  Mind you, last year was such a growing disaster that I probably shouldn't use it as a yardstick for judging the efficacy of sowing times.

Snow jobs for now

Clear the glass of the greenhouse and the cold frame to allow more of winter's limited light to penetrate - do your plants a favour and get sweeping (or digging, depending on how much snowfall you got!).

Unburden your shrubs and woody plants, like rosemary and lavender, of snow to stop the branches snapping.

Make hot chocolate with marshmallows as a reward to yourself.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Sprout alert

This is not a post-Sunday lunch warning, merely an update on what's happening in my boiler cupboard for the 52 week salad challenge.

Three days into my mung bean growing foray and things are already looking positive.

I look forward to tucking into them in a few days time - great to get that nice crispy/crunchy/fresh flavour at this time of year.

Meanwhile, have just dug out the car to go to the supermarket to stock up on the hazardous (but also tasty) brussel variety of sprouts to go with all the hearty wintery stews etc we will no doubt be consuming over the coming days.  

Dared to peek into my snow-shaded greenhouse this morning. I lifted the horticultural fleece covering my annual seedlings with trepidation after a week of temperatures hovering around freezing or below but was delighted to see that they are still defiantly with me. I just hope they can continue to resist the arctic conditions until the milder weather which we've been promised from next weekend.

Now I'm going to venture outside and brush the snow off my lavender so it doesn't get entirely bent out of shape, and also off the viburnum bush.  A gentle shake will help the plants to maintain their shape rather than getting snapped by the weight of the white stuff.  I, however, will probably end up looking like my snowman by the time I'm finished with this task.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Challenging salad

Too cold to sprout this week and indoor areas getting full (including with cats who are being banished for a couple of hours before bedtime as they refuse to go out for the necessaries in the snow - with yeuuuuch results).

Think I'm going to go for sprouting seeds this week - simple, easy and quick.  I've got a packet of mung bean sprouts that need finishing off so will start them tonight.

All they need is a jam jar to grow in, and a quick soaking and shake about with warm water and then a good draining.

I'll leave them in the warm dark boiler cupboard until they start to sprout - repeating the above process a couple of times a day.

Should only be a week until I'm eating fresh bean sprouts. Yum.


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Tall trees and tiny plots

"Make it stop!" clients plead as they point towards upwardly mobile trees.  But how can you make a tree stop growing when that's what it was made to do?

Yes, you can prune; yes, you can get the top section removed by a tree surgeon; yes, you can remove badly placed branches and lift up the canopy a bit. But guess what? That tree will still want to grow. Trying to keep something energetic, like a Norway spruce or a towering ash tree "compact"  is just mad. It's like trying to do Chinese foot binding on a giant.  These trees were intended to grow as members of a towering forest gang, not to be decorative in a suburban back garden.

You can indeed hack bits off and chop bits back, but you aren't going to do the tree much good.  If you are trying to keep a large tree small, chances are you are going to end up spoiling its natural, graceful habit and end up with multiple leaders, access for disease via pruning wounds  and a generally less healthy and robust tree. If you don't want your big tree to grow big - don't cut it back, get rid of it and choose something which will be a better size for your garden!  Better still, if you are planting, rather than just inheriting, a tree, make sure you know its predicted size and spread at maturity to see if it suits your purposes.

Also, when you find those little knobbly fingers of baby sycamore and ash growing in your borders, don't let them reach their teenage years before you decide you don't want a self-sown tree shading out your flowers. Be vigilant and ruthless in hoiking them out as you spot them - it's much easier when they're 10cm rather than 10m tall.  All you need is a trowel, not a tree surgeon as long as you keep a look out.

Not all trees are Godzilla.  There are many friendly, reasonable and rewarding ones which will add height, interest, wildlife appeal and structure to your garden.

Amelanchier Lamarkii (15-20ft) works hard to merit a spot for most of the year - with bronze foliage in spring, followed by delicate white blossoms which are rich in nectar for pollinating insects. The flowers are in turn replaced by berries, much loved by birds, in addition to being edible for humans. Its leaves also put on a final show for autumn before it bows out during the coldest months.

Amelanchier Lamarkii in spring

Hollies grow tall but are generally slow growing and are tolerant of being pruned or clipped to shape.

Crab apples (15-20ft) are decorative, useful and produce fruit which is attractive to birds and looks lovely lining the vase of autumnal flower arrangements (use a smaller vase inside the outer one and fill the gap with these small, colourful fruits).  There are lots of readily available varieties, with 'John Downie' being one of the most popular (and reputedly the best fruit for making wine and jellies)

For further suggestions, try some of the links below which give the advice on preferred planting conditions, and the final size of a range of small trees - all feature photos to help you decide on the aesthetic merits of each variety:

The Guardian - 10 of the best trees for small gardens

The Royal Horticultural Society - Trees for smaller gardens

Crocus: suggestions for small garden trees

These are articles and sites which I have found useful and are my personal suggestions. They are not sponsored or advertising links.

For some sound pruning tips, follow this link to Fine Gardening

If John Betjeman were a gardener...

Come friendly frosts and freeze those slugs!
Don’t cryogenically save mollusc thugs.
They’re top of the list of pestilent bugs.
Freeze over, kill!
Come, frost, and freeze to gristly blobs
Those devouring, trail-sliming, porkfattish yobs.
Wrecked leaves, wrecked stems, wrecked flowers, wrecked plants,
Wrecked harvest, wrecked plans.

Monday, 14 January 2013

A year-round crop

All gardening curtailed by snow (now melted) today, so instead I went in search of crocks.  Not to put in my plant pots for drainage, but to arrange my flowers in when picking season finally arrives.

A fine harvest today from local establishments of a charitable nature.

Couldn't buy new containers with this much character as cheaply and am delighted by my haul.  Can't wait to fill them later in the season.

At least they offer an alternative dream fuel to seed catalogues...

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Looks like being microgreens this week....

Having just seen the forecast for below zero temperatures and snow in the coming week, I think this week will have to see me doing a planting of microgreens for the salad challenge.  I can do these indoors in a container, they won't take up too much space, and I should be able to crop them within two to three weeks. Will check in my seed box and see what leafy/beety crops I have the most seeds for, and use some of those.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Allotment reality: the good, the bad and the ugly

Waiting lists for allotments are overflowing throughout the UK - it seems everyone wants a bit of land to grow things on these days, or at least they like the idea of doing so. But having an allotment is a big commitment and requires a fair bit of input if you want to come anywhere near reaping the rewards of self sufficiency.

I'm a gardening obsessive with a large (urban) garden at home, I do the garden at a local infant school and have a full plot at a nearby allotment.  Sounds perfect... but... the reality is, I also have family commitments, want to go away for the odd weekend and generally have competing demands on my available labouring time.  Which means, in inevitable reality, that I don't get down to the allotment as often as I should, or would like to.

Which means this:
Top section of the plot

It will not remain this way!  Having given up the day job, I now have more time available to  attack such scenes of criminal couch grass and will allocate a minimum of a day a week to tackle my plot.

But it is important to know that this is what happens if you can't get to the allotment regularly - this was all cleared this time last year and is not the result of complete and utter neglect.  But neither is it a shining example of how to manage your allotment...

When you apply for a plot, be realistic about the time you have to work it - would a half or full plot be the best size? How much help will you get from friends, family to work it or will you be doing it alone?  What condition is the plot in when you get it?

I took on a neglected plot in 2006.  If you can clear the ground and keep it in cultivation, things get steadily better:
Regular work will take it from this to....

...this. Not perfect, but getting there.

The work needed to keep the ground usable gets less as each time you remove a crop, you also dig over the soil and take the weeds out, thus reducing the amount of work you need to do for planting the next crop.  If you inherit a neglected plot as I did, adopt a strategy of clear and plant, clear and plant - don't try to clear the whole plot in one go as it will become an exercise in futility - when you eventually finish clearing the whole thing, the first bit you did will be overgrown again!  Mentally divide the plot into sections and target specific areas to bring into cultivation each year.  You may even manage to get further than you expect!

If like me, you get a whole plot and need some helping hands, keep an ear to the ground for word of people you know on waiting lists - choose likeminded suspects and encourage them to get involved on your plot whilst they are waiting.  You could decide to allocate them a bit of plot which needs bringing into cultivation which you haven't yet tackled, or treat it as a shared enterprise and all just muck in together.  The latter approach has worked for me, but even with another family of plot-sloggers in tow, the shared issue of limited time, and the prolonged spell of wet weather has resulted in the sad scene in the first photo.

I aspire to this level of tidiness and organisation in 2013! 

Don't get me wrong,  I LOVE my plot and the site is a a fantastic place to escape and for the children to poke around, build dens, snaffle blackberries from the hedgerows and to pick fruit straight from the trees (only on my plot of course). The idyll which makes allotments so alluring is not without foundation - they are indeed magical places full of great character (and characters).  But they also require regular hours and effort so make sure you're in it for the long haul, or have a very understanding committee!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The kindest cut

Inspired by getting my own straggly locks chopped off this morning, wielding my sharp secateurs and a disinfectant rag, I ventured into the thorny midsts of my roses today and took out all the lanky, dead and twiggy bits:  I want them to work hard for me in the cutting garden come early summer.

Most of my choices in the garden were made for glorious scent - the thing that turned me on to roses about 15 years ago. I was visiting a friend who suddenly exclaimed "Sniff that".  No, it wasn't anything more intoxicating than a beautiful white rose - and that was the start of my perfumed rose addiction.

I started off with 'Gertrude Jekyll'  (even though I thought I was buying Constance Spry).

Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll'

She's beautifully perfumed and flowers well but does get a bit leggy and straggly so I had to reduce her height by about a third this afternoon. Sorry Gertrude, but you'll thank me for it later, I hope.  Growing at the back of the border, climbing up an obelisk,  the lower growing peonies and hardy geraniums hide her naked legs, and it's good to have her pink blossoms giving height to the overall scheme.

A later purchase delivered a  'Constance Spry' to keep Gertrude company in the same stretch of border. I cut this one back quite a lot last year without any loss of flower power, and as a result have slightly less work to do on the pruning front this year.

Rosa 'Constance Spry"
I'm always slightly tentative about cutting back Old English type David Austin roses as I don't want them to lose their relaxed, arching habit.  This same habit, however, does mean that for arranging they are best cut on a shorter stems as they tend to droop with their thinner stems and large, heavy flowers.  Or you can support them in denser arrangements with your filler flowers as below:

Here, they're arranged with my yellow floribunda rose 'Absolutely Fabulous' which lived up to its name from June to November with amazing repeat flowering despite the pouring rain. The deep pink rose pictured is a small shrub 'John Betjeman' which has fantastic colour but, like Ab Fab, little scent.  The jury is still out on this one as his stems are rather weak and spindly - the glorious colour, however, buys him another year of grace to see if he can merit his space with sturdier stalks after a prune.

My other loves are the petite Felicite Parmentier;  the most perfect shell pink cluster flowered rose with amazing scent, and Falstaff; another leggy scrambler of the deepest magenta hue and nostril-thrilling whiffage.

Felicite Parmentier
Falstaff and foxgloves

The harshest cut was today reserved for my newly planted hybrid teas.  I've cut the ones which weren't already shortened by the nursery to about half their previous size - want them to grow into nice sturdy plants with strong flower-bearing stems.  My new additions are Black Baccara and Peace roses - the former seems to be reliably dark and dusky. The latter, however, in the images I've seen, seems to vary wildly between pastel hued lemon/cream delicately fading to pink edges,  and horribly canary combined with  lipstick pink - so I'm waiting with bated breath to see how that one pans out.  Will keep you posted!

Can't wait for them all to put on a show for me come June and to breath those smells again.  (But before that will come their manure top dressing in spring - not quite so pretty...).

So what are you waiting for?  You can't do a lot else at this time of year.  Take up your secateurs, sturdy gloves and your tweezers for spike removal surgery afterwards.  Some time between now and the end of February, nip out between the showers and give your roses a prune.

For advice on rose pruning, check out the Royal Horticultural Society website

Saturday, 5 January 2013

First salad leaves are in!

Twitter is a marvellous thing.  Having spent the morning weeding and clearing, my head was full of plans for newly cleared spaces and the salad challenge had slipped several rungs down my to-do list.  A quick break for lunch and a check of my email whilst downing a cup of tea, revealed a tweet from JP @gardengazelle saying that he/she was going to take up the challenge as well.  This reminded me that I'm going to be organised this year!  So I duly fished out some seeds and dug out a container from the depths of the shed.

(Actually, having paced around the garden for a while this morning, I spotted that the central bed is already sprouting lots of Lambs Lettuce 'Elan' - not that I planned or planted it.  It has self seeded happily since I first sowed it about three years ago, and now is always one of the first things to appear in an early mild spell.  So, maybe I should count this as my first salad crop and ban supermarket purchases from here on in?)

I chose a tin trough for this  batch of salads, purely because it is a decent size and has a base narrow enough to fit on my porch windowsill.  I don't like sowing salads in small pots because they can't produce enough to feed my bunch of gaping-mouthed cuckoos - whatever I sow in has to be large enough sprout a decent serving-size.  Children's voracious munching of plant material is surely a testament to the taste of homegrown salad.

For this batch I used peat-reduced multipurpose compost and mixed it with some perlite and sharp sand to improve the drainage so that seedlings aren't stuck in damp, cold, clag.

Filled the bottom of the trough (which has drainage holes in it already) with bits of polystyrene packaging from our bountiful Christmas supply. 

Mixed a few pinches of seed together for my salad mix - 'Red Salad Bowl' lettuce is a fantastic cut and come again variety,  lamb's lettuce 'Elan' as it seems very happy in current conditions judging by my outdoor crop, and mustard 'Red Frills' just because I have envelopes full of seed waiting to be used up!

Sowed it on top of the compost quite thickly as I find that sowing generously for cut and come again salads doesn't seem to affect them greatly - you can thin them out by pulling some out entirely and eating them if they are too dense and germinate too well!  Covered the seeds lightly with fine compost and gently firmed it down before watering.

I even remembered to add a label so that I know when my deadline is for my next sowing.

I've put the trough on a tray in my porch, but have put a layer of grit sand in the tray so that the base of the trough doesn't sit in the cold and wet too much (have run out of coarse grit, so must add that to my next garden shopping trip).  Have covered it with a couple of propagator lids - not because I think it needs it, but just to keep the cats from sitting on my seedlings (again).


Friday, 4 January 2013

The 52 week salad challenge

I've just taken up Veg Plotting's 52 week salad challenge, and for me, this will mean trying to sow a salad crop each week.  It will also mean trying to NOT buy salad leaves from the supermarket from the date of harvesting my first crop.  This may mean venturing into foraged leaves at certain points - will have to dip into "The Forager's Handbook" by Miles Irving, or my new Christmas book "The Hedgerow Handbook" by Adele Nozedar.  Both of these have some great ideas which I haven't yet sampled - for example pineapple weed and sow thistle leaves added to salads...

And salads can look so pretty too - on the plate, and growing:

I've long since discovered that they taste so much better when picked and eaten fresh, but have never before tried to be systematic about keeping the supply going.  An interesting experiment which I plan to attack tomorrow.

Will sow some mixed leaves in a container which I'll put in my porch - warmer than my unheated greenhouse so should be able to get the seeds germinating quite quickly if the weather stays as mild as it is at present.

Red frills mustard is really easy, pretty AND tasty. Also seeds prolifically so I have oodles of seed to sow!

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New blooms for New Year

They didn't quite make it in for Christmas, but my forced hyacinths decided to join the party for New Year. (Note to self - must make a note of when I start them off next year, so I can guesstimate how to adjust the timing to get them to flower for the start of the festive season).

Not bad for pound shop bulbs - a cheap present for myself.   Trying to forecast the colour was a bit like guessing delightful plastic content of a Christmas cracker. Their hyacinthy scent has replaced defunct piney wafts from my crispy tree in the living room, breathing a bit of floral life into 2013.  It's the first time I've forced hyacinths in water and have to confess that I have become quite taken with the aesthetic qualities of  their fleshy, slightly creepy, white roots in the glass vases.

 Look at that blue! What a great colour to bring in the year.

On which note, thought I'd better show you something amazing which I spotted outside my window this morning.

Happy New Year and a fruitful and floriferous 2013 to all!