Saturday, 30 March 2013

Forcing spring

Monty Don strode purposefully down his paths on Gardener's World last night, extolling the beauty of his primroses and plucking a tiny posy for his easter table. Lucky devil.  Would love to be plucking bunches of mine, but they are still firmly buried a week after the last mighty snowfall. I'm starting to seriously wonder if my April stall is going to be viable three weeks from now.  I think I'll give it another week and make a decision then.

The only chink of colour in a fairly bleak gardening picture appeared in my cold frame this week - in December, Spalding sent me some free bulbs to blog about, and my first daffs of the year have finally emerged from the ones I planted in the greenhouse on Boxing Day. It is nice to have something to brighten up the house for Easter even though these little tete a tete  daffodils are usually out by the end of February.  The fact that they are late arrivals makes them all the more welcome. Not a single outdoor daffodil is in bloom yet, though some are resolutely starting to fill out their buds.

yellow tete-a-tete mini daffodils flowering at easter in a shallow terracotta plantpot topped with moss and some chicks from the pound shop!  Mossy magnolia branches in bud surround the pot.

I'm also having a go at forcing magnolia branches, having rescued a heap of them from a recent local casualty. The heavy, pearlescent white and pink flowers of the gorgeous spreading magnolia tree just around the corner put on a stunning show every spring but some of its heavily budded boughs have succumbed to the weight of the accumulated snow. On seeing piles of branches on the lawn, I thought what a shame it was, but after chatting with the owner and collecting some of them up, I realised the full extent of the tree's injuries - perhaps not life-threatening, but still fairly major - one of the branches which came off must be about a foot in diameter.  

I got buckets of beautiful lichen-covered branches with furry buds which look like pussy-willow on steroids.  Lovely in their own right, but if I can get encourage them to open, they'll be magnificent.  Don't know if they are really far along enough to develop, but I'll give them a few weeks to have a go.  In the meantime, their sculptural form adds a little interest to the mantlepiece.

Mossy magnolia branches in a cream coloured jug

While I envy Monty his primroses in the current conditions,  he has at least inspired me to go out an get some more corrugated plastic sheeting to construct a temporary cold frame in the corridor between the garage and the greenhouse - at least its the kind of project which makes you feel like you are moving forward in the growing stakes despite the eternal winter.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

A spade for life

About 5 years ago, I was tempted by a long-handled De Wit spade when visiting Gardener's World Live at the NEC in Birmingham.  Having dug for years with a standard length (but beautifully sharp) spade inherited from my grandma, my eyes lit up at the sight of a border spade whose handle just seemed to go on forever.  The price, though more than a bog-standard spade, seemed reasonable to preserve my lumbar region as I'm nearly 6 feet tall. The chance to work with a tool suited to my height, seemed delightful - tools are a bit like trousers in my experience, never quite long enough. But pragmatically, you just get used to the Monsieur Hulot look.

I excitedly introduced my new purchase to my equally tall father, who grunted suspiciously and said it would never last as the greater leverage forces would make the shaft snap in no time.  Several years later, it was still going strong but a couple of weeks ago, when prising superfluous cherry laurel bushes out of the bottom hedge, there was a horrible cracking sound and his fateful prophecy came true.

I lost my grandma's venerable spade last year when it snapped in two after being used used, axe-fashion, by a person unnamed, to remove a huge rambling rose bush from the border. I was therefore devastated to have lost my other favourite. As I glumly rubbed mud off the De Wit logo on the cracked and split handle, I dimly recalled something about a lifetime guarantee.  In this age of the internet, it didn't take long to find the Dutch company's facebook page, to post them a message and indeed, to get a reply enquiring which model of spade I possessed.  The whole process took about 20 minutes from sitting down at the computer to sending them a photo of my damaged spade. Three days ago  a long cardboard parcel arrived, containing my new handle for no charge whatsoever.

Now all that remains is for me to get the old shaft out and replace it with the new one.  Looks like that's something I can be getting on with while it continues to chuck it down with snow outside.

Thumbs up for De Wit though - very impressed with their product and their customer service. It looks like their spades really are for life.

Disclosure:  The views expressed in this post are based purely on my personal experience and are not solicited, sponsored or paid for in any way by the company concerned.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Spring Unsprung

First official day of spring 2013. And there's more forecast for tomorrow and next week.  What a great choice to decide to start growing flowers for April.  I read an article from the Guardian which discussed the stop start nature of spring's springing this year and it suggested that when growth finally begins, it could be spectacular and everything will burst into life at once.

Here's hoping.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Don't make a slime bin!

Having been brought up with a bucket by the back door for peelings, teabags and the like, I have been composting as long as I have been gardening.  It's amazing how much it reduces your back bag count if you eat a reasonable amount of fruit and veg (or drink copious amounts of tea or coffee - but more of those valuable coffee grounds later). For the past few years I have used a sorting bin in the kitchen and dedicate a section of that to composting scraps - much to the confusion of all visitors who contemplate the sections in mild confusion and fear.

I'm a bit more cautious about a bin by the back door than I once was, having had close and unneighbourly relations with rats, and now take things straight from the house to the black plastic daleks that lurk behind a screen of bushes.

 Before the cats arrived, I would occasionally find a furry friend disappearing, bottom up, scaly worm tail aloft, down the side of the outside compost bin when I lifted the lid off.  I never compost cooked waste or citrus as this is supposed to attract them, but still they came. Seriously wondered about stopping for a while, but visits from the rat man and his evil pellets seemed to do the trick in getting rid. And then we got cats. Don't see any but the odd corpse 'gift' these days so despite my wingeing about squashed seeds, the feline side of the family do have their benefits.

On guard

The infant school where I garden has just acquired a plastic compost bin in order for the children to compost all their fruit leftovers at break time, and the kitchen staff are encouraged to add the salad and veg peelings as well.  A great idea, but without a balance of materials, they'll just have a bin of putrid slime oozing on the playground!

If you want to compost, make sure you put a balanced mixture of materials in your bin - it needs to have brown, woody material which doesn't just collapse so that air is kept in the system.  I did my bit by adding a lot of dried perennial plant stalks in my tidying activities yesterday, and these, chopped up a bit with a spade or secateurs are ideal.  Softer plant waste and kitchen peelings are great for adding moisture and helping to generate a bit of decomposition and warmth.  Grass clippings are good in moderation, but need to be mixed with drier stuff like leaves to stop them forming a slimy, smelly slab in your bin. I also add all my shredded office paper - would like to see anyone try to reconstitute my bank statements from the gooey mass of worms and woodlice!  I usually keep a pile of dry material at the side of my bin so that I can add it in alternate layers when I put the kitchen waste into it.

The school bin is currently situated on the tarmac playground, which is not really ideal as no worms or insect life will scramble in from the soil and set to work in digesting and decomposing the waste.  The bin is, however, on a mild slope near a drain, so at least any run off will be cleared.

To encourage the start of the composting process, I'm going to donate half a bucket of stuff from my own bin, in order to introduce some of the many brandling worms which line the lid on warmer days.   I did suggest getting some of the kids to wee in the bin as this is said to be a good starter too - though perching on it might contravene all health and safety rules!

The next bit of good news I need to give them is that they could really do with more than one bin - not just because the size of the garden can generate enough waste to fill it four times over, but because in order to encourage the composting process, the material it contains does need to be mixed and turned every now and then.  I don't understand why manufacturers of bins put in those flappy doors at the bottom as you can't really use them to get compost out as it gets quite compressed during the process - what you need to do every few months (or when the bin gets quite full) is fork the contents of the full bin into an empty one.  Just lifting it out and shaking it in gets more air into the mixture and distributes all the beasties through the heap, getting them to work on fresh bits.  Once you've turfed it all into the new bin, put a lid on, don't keep adding to it and leave it to rot down into crumbly black marvellousness.  Start a new heap in your now empty bin and by the time that one is full, the undisturbed one will usually have produced well rotted, earthy smelling compost which is ready to use on the garden.

As for the coffee grounds I mentioned earlier, until last week I always chucked them into the compost, but am now saving them separately, to use as slug barriers around mollusc-susceptible plants. Will let you know if it works.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The sky may be grey, but the eggs are blue

I knew you could 'go to work on an egg', but I never knew that you could fall in love with them.  Found these jewels yesterday and can hardly bear to use them as they look so pretty.

The product of a Cotswold Legbar if you want to get your hands on some!

Discovered this afternoon that they make the most stunningly dark yellow lemon curd too. Deep yellow yolks.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Progress report.

I keep looking at the garden and wondering when things will really turn towards the growing season. The tulips and alliums are slowly emerging, buds are on the spirea and the lungworts bravely having a go at flowering and the ground elder is coming back to say hello.

Here and there, a few patches of self-sown seeds (weeds?) are germinating, so even though it feels subzero, I guess things must be warming up slightly.  Not so much that my hesitant hellebores have dared to open the buds which they've been holding for a month, however.

Tomorrow is farmer's market day, but thankfully not for me.  I still catch my breath in mild panic at the thought of filling a stall in April, especially looking at the low temperatures predicted for the next few weeks in long range forecasts. Will anything ever grow????

Keep trying to come up with resourceful ideas, and have made some dogwood wreaths with multi-coloured stems. Like my china finds, I fall in love with them and find myself reluctant to part with these little beauties and covet them for my own. Will have to train myself out of such tendencies pretty sharpish!!

On a bright (very bright) note, this week saw me organise market stall insurance, and take delivery of some packaging materials - small paper carriers in eye-pokey pink and equally vibrant tissue papers.  It is quite sad how excited I got about their arrival. Makes me feel like a kid playing at shop.   I've also ordered business cards and t-shirts so things feel like they are actually going somewhere now.

Spent this morning hiding in the greenhouse potting up my MASSIVE dahlia tubers (let's hope this bodes well for floriferousness - they are about twice the size of the tubers I've previously bought from garden centres). Seed sowing included cerinthe (to replace the lot which the cats knocked flying last week in their sneak greenhouse raid), heartsease violas and more stocks.  The stocks I sowed in the cold greenhouse are looking much more purposeful than the ones sown in heat, indoors, so will stick to a cold regime for those in future.  For the allotment, also potted up some broad bean seeds, but am running out of space so the rest will have to get sown direct into the soil next month with prayers for reasonable, seasonable weather.

I think I will feel much better about everything when the trees come into leaf and things really start to take off. Until that magical 'boing' moment, things feel like they are never going to to turn. Hurry up spring, I've got plants to plant.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Egg posies

Thinking about my first stall in April and decided that this was a nice way to use small flowers from the garden for easter arrangements. Just got to find ways to make everything stay put for ease of transportation, and then these could work!

Primulas, viburnum tinus, pittosporum and lungwort.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Spring teacups

Spalding bulbs sent me some freebies in December and I planted them in the greenhouse, given that they'd arrived at the tail end of the planting season. Here I rehome them into more salubrious surroundings, ready to go for spring.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Too excited to be wordless this Wednesday

Have had an extremely productive morning constructing my new raised bed.  Got the idea from the #britishflowers twitter group (that typo came out as 'titter group',  quite like it) on Monday evening.  Rosie Ellis @bespokeconfetti suggested that a cut off builders dumpy bag filled with gritty soil would make a perfect home for growing larkspur.

Funnily enough, on my remaining concrete wasteland patch, I had a builders dumpy with the remains of a load of ballast in it.  Shifted the stacked slabs currently in that spot, dragged the dumpy into position and cut down the sides.  Now all I need to do is top it up with some gritty topsoil - still have the leftovers from my friend's previous donation in a heap at the bottom of the garden so will add grit, mix it up and chuck it in.  So pleased to be using up all these things which have been cluttering up the place!

A further ingredient I've been able to put to use are the blue bricks which have been sitting around in stacks since I lifted them out of the paved side area. They are now neatly providing an unmortared wall around this new planting pocket, and I think that they transform it from a bit of an eyesore into something quite presentable.

I can already imagine it billowing with larkspur in a few months time.  I will defeat slugs with organic pellets this year, following last year's onslaught on the dahlias.  They will not beat me in 2013.

So a massive THANKYOU again to Rosie for her brilliant idea!!!

Monday, 4 March 2013

I love George

I've made a new discovery this year - iris histrioides 'George'.  The first two flowers are out and are lovely objects to ponder as I do the washing up.  Despite the subzero night time temperatures, they are there every morning, as perfect as ever, their deep purple petals defying the frosts.

They seem very happy in the raised bed I created last September - they relish the gritty, well-drained conditions and cope happily with the shade cast by the neighbouring house  for the latter part of the afternoons.  Originating (via Sarah Raven) from the mountains of northern Turkey, they are tough characters and their immaculate blooms are apparently impervious to rain, snow, sleet and frost. It's hard to believe these flowers have been held for the best part of two weeks already and still look perfect.

Early and fabulous though they are, there is a problem. They are, to put it bluntly, short-arses.  It's not that I'm size-ist, it's just that they are only about 10-15cm tall and are planted amidst rows of emerging tulips, which will engulf them over the coming weeks. That's the price paid for putting bulbs in as they arrive,  rather than doing a single bulk order and planning out my planting more strategically.  So....  once their show is over for this year and they've had a bit of rest, I will move them over to the other side of the garden and plant them in the narrow border down the side of the drive which needs cheer at this time of year.

I think they will look much nicer planted in informal groups, adding a bit of colour, and keeping my rose and baby Christmas box plants company.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Big steaming piles of poo.

I'm off to see a woman about a horse today - or to be more accurate, about some bags of muck for the back garden.

It's been soooooo rainy for the past two years, the soil needs plenty of enrichment before this year's plants go into the borders.  I've emptied my compost bins into any patches of bare soil and added bonemeal to planting holes for anything and everything, but now it's time for the serious stuff.

Living on the edge of a city, I am fortunate that we are in easy distance of the green fringes of ruraldom and that my contact in the office at school has horses.  Productive ones it seems.  So I'm off to line the back of my car with nuclear strength protection, to wind the windows down and to go get some poo. Oh, and I must remember my shovel.