20 May 2018

Six on Saturday: Mid May in the Veg Patch

Honey bee on chive flower

May is the token first month of summer and it's been a corker.  Everything that looked a teeny bit dismal in the middle of April has burst into life, seeds are germinating, bees are buzzing and it's a real pleasure to be outside in warm sunshine.  This is a novelty as I usually associate May with the sort of unpredictable weather that makes it hazardous to plant out beans and sweet corn that I've nurtured indoors. This year I've sown my sweetcorn seeds straight into the ground having seen last year that direct sowing produced much stronger plants than those I transplanted.

That doesn't mean that I don't have plenty of seed sowing going on indoors - my windowsills and balcony are filled with seeds in paper pots. The downside to that is that paper pots are so easy to make, and plastic trays readily available as drip trays, that it's highly probable that there won't be enough space for all the plants I've sown.  I'm going to guess I'm not alone in this ...

My six for this Saturday:

This first flower opened today; I think it's Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). It reappeared in the quince tree bed after I cleared a huge amount of dead scented geranium and overgrown golden oregano from the area in late spring.  To be honest, I had no idea it was there although I remember putting a small plant in a few years ago, had daisies that summer and then nothing for the past couple of years. I guess clearing the ground gave lingering seeds the chance they needed to germinate!  (And this morning the flowers were a magnet for aphid eating hoverflies - win:win!)

Purple asparagus stems

I harvested my second round of Purple Pacific asparagus (five stems!) at the beginning of the week; they were sweet and delicious.  I only have three crowns left from the original five in my square metre bed so thought that might be IT for this year but noticed today another three stems pushing through. Exciting (and delicious) times! It feels so good to be gathering food from the garden already after a winter of very little.

While I was out on Friday, two bags of Dalefoot's new Bulb Compost were delivered to my door.  At the Garden Press Event back at the end of February, I signed up for a couple of bags to trial and this is perfect timing as I have an old tub of lilies, about to flower in about 4 inches of ancient compost.  I found a rather more lovely pot for them,  put 4 inches of delicious fluffy bulb compost at the bottom, then the bulbs (lifted wholesale from the old pot with just a teensy bit of loose compost brushed away) and topped everything up with more bulb compost. Back in the garden they were given a good watering.  It's a good feeling to shower a bit of love on hard working plants!

 Crisis averted! Seeds vs seedlings vs plants is a daily juggle on my tiny balcony with no space to spare. I'm sure we all know that one, yes? It's a squeeze out there and a tiny tray of coriander seeds that had recently germinated after a very long wait was, I thought, safely balanced ... but, as I squeezed round the door ...  Oops a daisy!  Luckily I had pots and compost to hand (in my living room, of course - welcome to second floor gardening) so quickly potted them on.  Whew! A quick save which seems to have worked, in fact is probably very timely!

Achocha seedling

I've grown Achocha, a South American member of the cucumber family, for a number of years now.  They always grow really well in my veg patch, getting around 6 hours of sunshine a day (when available!) and can get up to 20ft (around 6 metres) long. So this year, I decided to grow something else unusual and give achocha a miss.  Or not.  Yesterday I spotted several self seeded achocha plants growing behind the broad beans, looking very strong and healthy and I'm not one to waste a good plant.  So I'm going to need more than one arch this year as the other unusual edible I'm growing is Luffah (aka bath sponge but edible fruits when young) and with the current number of sunshine hours will grow as big as the achocha - yikes!

Lastly (sixthly?), the oca gifted to me by my friend Tanya who writes the Lovely Greens blog (also check out her You Tube channel) has emerged overnight.  So looking forward to this one; it's a first time growing this for me.

Enjoy the weekend weather everyone - let's hope it lasts - and may your gardens be ever bountiful.

16 May 2018

A bumper year for fruit?

Pear blossom in April

Now that the last of the fruit blossom has dropped - quince excepted - my current obsession is to walk around the garden checking for fruitlets.  I've been gardening in the veg patch for almost a decade now and this has become a bit of an annual ritual.  I'm looking after ten fruit trees (apples, pears, plums, cherries and quince) as well as soft fruit and it's incredibly frustrating to see beautiful blossom fall to the ground before being pollinated. So, every spring, I'm on the lookout for fruit set. It's a hazard of urban gardening that any wind is funnelled between buildings, creating challenging conditions for insects to pollinate and blossom to stay put on the tree.  This year though, I've got a good feeling that the crazy weather so far this year might just have been the perfect thing for the fruit trees.

Bitter cold kept the trees dormant until early April and then we leapt into a confusing spring that alternated between warm sunshine and heavy rain - perfect for giving the trees a steady supply of water and warmth to wake up buds on the branches. Our trees are self fertile but fruit better if pollinators are around so a few days of warmth helped there too. Time will tell whether those pollinators were more interested in the tulips, daffodils and forget-me-nots rather than fruit blossom! It's crucial that plants are well watered when fruit is setting, something of an annual challenge for me as there is no easy access to water in the veg garden. So when it rains heavily, as it did last weekend, I just end up smiling.

(A little bit of botany: once the flower has been pollinated, water is directed to swell the pericarp which then slowly expands  around the seed or stone to make the flesh of apples, pears, cherries, etc. Without sufficient moisture, the pericarp withers and the fruitlet falls from the tree.)

This year I also made a start on pruning out congested branches in the centre of the plum and pear trees, back in the depths of winter; I wanted to see if better airflow through the centre of the tree canopies would improve things. Branches that were crossing over, heading into the middle of the tree or those poker straight 'water' shoots were all removed.

Growers Tip:
There's still more pruning to be done so the plan is to have another go at the end of summer.  Around this time trees begin their winter dormancy so energy is going back into the roots instead of the branches. Late summer pruning  allows trees to be shaped without promoting more growth. Stone fruit, such as cherries and plums, should be pruned, if needed, at that time anyway to reduce the risk of succumbing to airborne viruses.

Clockwise from top left:
Pretty cherry fruitlets, plums, apples, apple blossom

So after all that, has it worked? Probably too early for certainty but recent signs have led me to be cautiously optimistic of some fruit this year. Plum trees planted at the start of the veg patch nearly a decade ago, have never fruited; pear numbers have been sketchy at best. This year though with warmth, watering and better airflow, I'm seeing tiny fruitlets swelling in a very positive way, even on the plum tree.  In past years, with no plum fruit to harvest, I've threatened to chop down the plum tree then relented and given it another chance. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was the year that the tree rewarded my patience?

Conference pear fruitlets
Several very round pear fruitlets on both pear trees.
What's going on?
And, in other news, there looks like being plenty of apples and pears - although some of the pear fruit look more like apples which is definitely weird. Ironically, as I don't eat sour cherries, the cherry trees are always laden with fruit as Morello cherries do well in our east facing border. The quince still has blossom (just) with plump little velveteen swellings behind; last year the tree produced five viable quinces but all developed some kind of rot before they could be picked. Very disappointing. I'm hoping for much, much better this year.

9 May 2018

Awaiting Edith

Iris 'Edith Wolford' flower bud

There is so much to be amazed at in the garden at the moment.  I tidied up this border (the 'Washing Line' border) over the weekend, including taking old leaves off the iris rhizomes so I know for a fact that there were no flower buds there.  Just fans of sword shaped leaves which, in itself, adds to the overall visual interest.  And then, yesterday, these appeared.  Whoah, how did that happen?! (I'm guessing a few days of hot sunshine might have helped.)

Given the speed that the flower stem appeared, I'm now on a daily watch for the flowers themselves. This is 'Edith Wolford'; she's a classy Iris germanica, reliably flowering in May/June, and has been slowly spreading out across this border since I brought her home from the Chelsea flower show a few years ago.

I didn't realise how much I loved Irises until I saw Edith on the Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants stand.  It was a must-have, love-at-first-sight, moment.  She's a beauty with creamy yellow standards (the upright petals) and blue-violet falls (the downward petals) with an orange beard in the centre - looks a bit like a hairy caterpillar!  A stunner in the looks department and her presence in this border brings together the purple alliums, Erysimum Bowles' Mauve, lavender, Perovskia, etc, with the yellow flowers of Santolina (cotton lavender), alpines and yellow-green New Zealand flax.

The 'Washing Line' border in late May 2017 - see what I mean about blending with the rest?

Growers tip:
Something I learned during my Capel Manor days was that the top of the rhizomes (the roots that look like raw ginger) need to be exposed and baked during the summer in order to promote flowering the following year.  I made the mistake of covering the rhizomes when I first planted Edith and had no flowers the following year - swiftly corrected when I knew better! Since then (years 3 and 4, 2016/17) I've had more and more flowers, several on each stem, so am eagerly anticipating Edith's arrival this year.

The Back Story:
I wish I knew more about the naming of irises because I'd love to know who Edith Wolford was/is - I do love a bit of background. The name suggests a character from James Joyce or E.M. Forster but I like to think that she was a renowned actress, a diva, a famous beauty; the reality is probably that she was a pillar of the community, a friend or beloved relative.  My internet search reveals only an elementary school in Colorado, USA.  Do tell if you can shed some light!

Irises were originally purple (or so I've read) and represent royalty and wisdom - hence inspiring the French Fleur-de-lis symbol. Yes, that does translate as lily flower but irises were classed as lilies until the 18th Century.  The flowers were known long before that, being discovered by the Pharoahs of Egypt when they conquered Syria and also known to the Ancient Greeks who named the flower for Iris, goddess of the rainbow; to this day, irises are placed on graves to form a passage between heaven and earth.

I've only the one iris for now but every year think that I need some more, maybe a reflowering or later type. Hands up - anyone else in the Iris Appreciation Society?

19 Apr 2018

New for 2018: The Ascot Spring Garden Show

I nearly didn't go. The weather has been so poor recently that I found myself questioning the sanity of anyone staging a garden show in mid April. At the eleventh hour though, my own sanity prevailed and I contacted the organisers for a pass which they produced with lightning speed.

And that was the first thing that struck me - this inaugural show seemed very organised and efficiently run; well thought out, attention to detail, appealing and entertaining.  It was an excellent start for a new show. The show's organisers have correctly gauged what the public wants (imho ๐Ÿ˜Œ) - space, choice, inspiration, advice, food, plants and seating. The show was created because of a gap in Ascot Racecourse's spring calendar and steered to success by Stephen Bennett, previously Show Director for the RHS.

~ My two favourite gardens: Top, On Point by Tom Hill; Below, The Courtyard by Joe Perkins

So, what's on offer at the show?  The big draw had to be the twelve show gardens, six by professional designers and six by hort college teams under the Young Gardeners of the Year competition. I'm sure in future years there will be more but, for this inaugural show, these were just enough to drink in all the detail. It was lovely to see how vibrant a spring garden could be and especially nice to see magnolias and cherry blossom being used in the designs - something not possible for summer shows.

Then there was retail therapy. There were 33 specialist plant nurseries at the show, plus 58 trade stands selling all sorts of garden related ephemera such as tools, shoes, garden sculptures, landscaping, furniture and the most divine and highly desirable greenhouses.  I think I may have stroked one or two of them while no-one was looking. The plant nurseries were especially popular as mid-spring is the perfect time to be thinking about what to do in your own garden - and filling any gaps for next year's spring garden before those thoughts are replaced by summer.

~ Love this display! What a good idea, displaying pots of spring bulbs in wine boxes.
Especially if you get to drink the wine first ... ~

TV gardener, David Domoney, led a programme of talks in the theatre throughout all three days of the show; I rather regret not catching his talk on Unusual Gardening Techniques, held the day after I was there.  From the Show Guide:
'From feeding plants with nails, caring for plants with vodka, Viagra, or making bumble bee nests with hosepipe, cotton wool and a pot, to how to gain items to garden for free from self-service restaurants, flight bags, pubs, and even  Ikea! It's a humorous, pen grabbing talk (underpinned with science) which makes best use of gardening practices, recyling, money saving and the resourcefulness of a gardener.' 
Vodka? Viagra? Flight bags? The mind boggles. You can see why I might be curious.  There were also talks from Pippa Greenwood (Grow Gorgeous Vegetables), floristry demonstrations from celebrity florist Simon Lycett and 'Plants for a Spring Garden' from the Keeper of the Garden at Windsor Great Park and his assistant. In addition, there was a giant screen overlooking the concourse (presumably in situ for the horse racing punters) so I was able to catch snippets of interviews taking place around the show and, I think, possibly some of the talks.

The show makes for a pleasant and leisurely day out. It's not so large that you can't fit it all in, and not overcrowded either, with wide aisles between the trade stands, a plant crรจche, plenty of food outlets ranging from a quick bite to something more substantial and even somewhere nice to sit with tables and chairs set out by the bandstand.  Bandstand?  Yes, indeed. A backdrop of music jollied things along but was never intrusive. At one point the English spring was lifted by the sounds of a Caribbean steel band gently transporting visitors to warmer climes.  To make the day really special, posh, proper, Afternoon Tea was available with sandwiches, scones, little pastries and a glass of champagne if wanted, a cuppa if not. At a price, of course, but definitely worth getting your frock and hat on for. (I didn't stop for tea but will bear it in mind for next year!)

As I was there in my blogger guise, I was given a Show Guide booklet as part of the press pack. As a nice surprise this was packed with useful and relevant information, with adverts kept to a minimum, and represented good value for the £2 cover charge.

Altogether, I came away from the show happy and relaxed, feeling I'd chatted to some interesting people, been inspired by the variety of spring planting used in the show gardens ... and, of course, with a boot full of plants. Really, an excellent day.

The show is hosted by Ascot Racecourse in association with the Gardens of Windsor Great Park. There's easy access through the Berkshire countryside from three motorways (M3, M4 and M25), plentiful free parking and a (very) local railway station.   Next year's show is 12-14th April 2019.

14 Apr 2018

Six on Saturday: In a very happy place

The past week seems to have sped past, and this morning I'm definitely in my happy place having woken up to clear blue skies. Those have now turned to the promised 'light cloud' - weatherspeak for grey with a hint of occasional sun - but it's dry, bright, and I have a free day ahead - perfect! Six things that have contributed to happiness this week ...

~ looks very crowded at ground level but I can see lots of gaps for annuals from above ๐Ÿ˜Š ~
1- On Monday the scaffolding surrounding my block of flats started to be taken down. The white safety netting had clouded my view for the past five+ months while the roof was retiled. Day one revealed the sky and let light onto my balcony and by Tuesday I could see out again. By Wednesday, the middle garden came into view fully for the first time since November and I could get a clearer idea of what needs doing. Bizarrely, I've been feeling rather exposed without the netting; funny how we get used to things.

2- The avocado stone which was planted during a workshop 'How to successfully grow an avocado' in October last year, finally cracked and started growing four weeks ago - only five months of patience required and, actually, pretty thrilling. This past week four leaves have unfurled from a sturdy stem. I am vindicated and a good houseplant grower at last.

~ Here's a few I made earlier ... ~
3- I have discovered a new and surprisingly soothing pastime - making paper pots while watching tv. I usually catch up with a few crime dramas (my fave) on the weekend but single tasking doesn't suit me so I got out the new paper pot maker and soon had rather a lot of empty vessels for my seed sowing. What joy!

4- Part of the ongoing renovations here include making good and repainting the concrete areas of my balcony. So the crumbling built in windowbox has been emptied of soil, repaired and repainted in bright white, and consequently made a disgrace of my efforts at painting the rest of the brickwork a few years back. Cue: kind painters to the rescue with a large water bottle filled with free paint.  I've cleared the tiny balcony so I'll repaint it today and will then put up lots of shelves for container salad and herbs. Expect a Show and Tell when it's done!

5- Yesterday I went to the new Ascot Spring Garden Show, held at the racecourse in Berkshire. That in itself gave me a very good reason to be happy, but as there were so many excellent nurseries there, it would have been silly not to take a look, wouldn't it?  This morning I've spent a happy five minutes potting up the three tiny succulents that leapt into my basket yesterday.  Don't they look lovely? They were bought for my son to fill his empty Bonsai dish but I can feel myself getting rather fond of them.

6- Also highly related to yesterday's garden show, sitting downstairs in the garden are two trays of herbs, a white peony, a variegated eryngium and variegated leaf iris waiting to be planted today. Just writing that list makes my heart flutter - not, I hasten to add, because of the ££ spent but I'm just thinking of the loveliness to come. Pay it Forward happiness, for sure.

Linking to #SixonSaturday hosted by The Propagator blog. Six garden related happenings posted on a Saturday for a bit of fun. Hop over to find a few more Sixes and maybe to join in!

11 Apr 2018

Book(let) Review: Ten Poems about Sheds (Instead of a card)

Poems about sheds? What's not to love!

But at the risk of sounding like a complete Philistine, I admit that I've always preferred prose to poems.  I like to get stuck into the narrative and subtleties of a good book and all but a handful of poems leave me either baffled or indifferent. A Romantic, I am not.

So when Candlestick Press asked recently if I would like to review their latest publication 'Ten Poems about Sheds', I was initially reluctant but I took a look anyway.  The title alone is enough to pique the interest of any gardener - don't we all have a bit of a thing about sheds?

Having found my way to their website, I discovered booklets with beautifully illustrated covers on a range of subjects - most, not all, are poetry anthologies.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I opened my copy of 'Ten Poems about Sheds'; probably a few lighthearted, jolly poems. I know I imagined shades of Roald Dahl or Edward Lear. Instead I found a collection of thoughtful, evocative, free verse poems.

Let me quote from the back cover:
"A shed may be just a place to keep the lawnmower, or it may be somewhere to escape to in order to write or paint. Sometimes it's a haven in which to daydream when the house is full of noise and bustle [...] These enchanting poems will lead you quietly into private worlds where you'll find you're entirely at home."
For me, the word 'shed' takes me back to my grandpa's garden where I can still see the black shed where he stored and maintained his tools. I'm not sure I was allowed inside, perhaps just a peek from the doorway to watch him work, but I remember the smells of creosote, linseed oil, wood and earth. Heady stuff for a small girl keen on digging. I thought it a magical curious place.

And that's the power I found in these poems, each one evoked a different memory or train of thought and I found myself lingering over the words.  Isn't that what a card or letter should do?

Because that's the brilliant thing about these booklets - they're designed to be sent instead of a card. While I love to get birthday or christmas cards, I've always regretted the waste; they're usually not something you'd want to keep forever, and I prefer things to have more longevity. No, cards are heartwarming to receive but inevitably - and regrettably - soon recycled.

But this booklet (and others in the range) is something to be savoured; to find a moment, perhaps over morning coffee, to sit and read at leisure - and then to tuck away to read again later. The titles drew me in - 'To the Shipbuilder, his Tabernacle', 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', or simply 'The Shed':

"Step in it's a tardis: vortex of smells
distilled a century - of pre-war
timber, earth-floor, and the gold decay
of sawdust, linseed, two-stroke oil ..."
(The first verse of 'The Shed' by Stuart Henson)

The A5 sized booklets have a quality feel, being printed on smooth, matte, white paper with a heavier card cover.  They're packaged in a cellophane wrap with a sturdy envelope plus a very handy bookmark with space for a personal message.  Each card is £4.95 plus postage, not a huge amount more than the cost of an average greetings card and yet offering so much more.

Although I was asked to review 'Ten Poems about Sheds', I couldn't resist taking a look at a couple of the other booklets.  Having read them, I've been drawn back to re-read them many times.

Ten Poems of Kindness: The back cover explains: "A simple and almost old-fashioned word, kindness is an underestimated virtue in our increasingly hectic and impersonal world. These generous poems remind us that kindness can take many forms and doesn't have to be time-consuming or complicated." The book includes an open letter from the mother of Felix Alexander, the 17 year old boy who took his life in 2016 after years of cyber-bullying. In the letter she exhorts people to "be kind always". The introduction is written by poet Jackie Kay who writes, "Being kind allows you to see the sunlight through the leaves."  I'll happily promote anything that inspires people to be more kind to each other.

In his introduction to Ten Poems about Gardens, Monty Don writes "These are all fine poems, all perfectly practical celebrations of why and how to garden. Read them with soil under your nails and to cultivate all that grows within. Read them and go out and garden the better for it."  There's a fabulous poem about allotments in this selection that made me smile, as well as an ode to the passions that Sissinghurst has seen and another, Vespers, that starts, "I don't wonder where you are any more; you're in the garden ..." That should strike a chord with more than a few folk I know!

But my absolute favourite (so far, hah!) has to be the story of The Wood in Winter; the phrasing is hauntingly beautiful and I love the cover. The author is John Lewis-Stempel, an award winning nature writer. The back cover introduces us: 'He writes about why being in a wood in winter strips us to our essential soul, and how close encounters with the animals who thrive in this hard season remind us of our own deep connection to the earth.'  I particularly enjoyed the narrator's encounter with a fox in the snow: "... the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive. The red fox."  Or birds: "Some rooks flew overhead; not the usual ragged, weary flight to roost, but an oaring deep and strong with their wings."  An oaring ... exquisite.

~ Wonderful woodcut illustrations add to the story of The Wood in Winter ~

Without becoming too evangelical, I hope I've inspired a few readers to take a wander over to the Candlestick Press website. They're a small Nottingham based company who print and publish in the UK and it would be a great shame not to be made aware of their titles. I think the booklets make perfect gifts and there's something for everyone - whether it's knitting, bicycles, chickens, clouds, telephones, tea, cricket, cats, dogs, puddings or relatives ... and much more! I'm tempted by a couple of the Christmas volumes; I like the look of 'The Christmas Wren' (also in Welsh) and 'The Gift of the Old One'.

New anthologies coming out this year include poems about Picnics, Rivers and Walking, among others.

Candlestick Press and their range of 'Instead of a Card' poetry pamphlets, can be found here.
Poetry pamphlets are stocked at over 300 UK card and book shops, including some branches of Waterstones, Blackwell's, Amazon and, best of all, probably your local book shop.
They can also be ordered online via the Candlestick website, postage is £1.25 for up to 2 booklets, or £1.65 for 3-4 booklets. Postage is by 1st class Royal Mail for speedy delivery.

My appreciative thanks to Candlestick Press for the review copies.

4 Apr 2018

The Real End of Month View for March, in April

At the weekend I wrote about spring flowers that are currently blooming around and in the veg patch but didn't look at the wider view of what else is happening. It's easier to focus in on the detail when skies are grey!  So, for a proper end of month view, I took another wander around the various little patches that I manage here - the veg patch, the shady border, the washing line border and the middle garden. (Yes, my patch has spread outwards over the years!)

The Veg Patch

Urban Veg Patch - Urban food garden
~ After the tidy up ~
Urban Veg Patch - fruit and veg in early spring
~ Spring growth - rhubarb and ransoms, tulips and fruit buds ~
Spring weather has been challenging for us gardeners - a bit of in/out, in/out, but don't shake it all about (seeds, that is!).  I resisted the urge to sow during March - mainly because my balcony is off limits at the moment, and it's too dark inside for seedlings. That worked in my favour as the weather was brutal at times. I risked sowing a few broad beans and sweet peas back in January. The broad bean plants have been sitting in the veg patch for a week now waiting for me to plant them during a break in the rain (and not being distracted by other jobs) while the sweet peas grow ever taller on my balcony in the shade of the scaffolding boards above.

Things were a bit more clement by the end of March so raised beds were weeded, cleared and prepared for sowing. Garlic, spinach, onions and carrots are in. Broad beans will be planted next (after the compost bin is emptied) and peas sown. The pear and quince trees are about to unfurl their leaves, way ahead of the other fruits. Scented geraniums killed by bad weather have been chopped back ready for removal; a huge patch of spreading golden oregano has been dug out to clear a space for rhubarb. The quince has been pruned for airflow. My plan this year is to return the veg patch to a food growing space but first I have to decide what to do with the perennials and bulbs growing there. I'm not one for bare soil so those plants earn their keep in spring. But I need to borrow the space back for beans and beetroot over the summer. Thinking cap on.

The Shade Border

Urbanvegpatch - Plants for a shady border
~ Shade border - Anemones flowering at last! Plus ferns work well in shade ~
The Shady Border sits at the northern end of the veg patch gardens and is named for the permanent summer gloom cast by two very tall Viburnum x bodnantense and a climbing rose with nowhere to climb. For the past year, this border has also had light stolen by a shipping container parked a couple of metres in front of it, part of ongoing building works. I've been walking past this 4 metre long border all winter thinking that I'd dig out anything worthwhile and abandon it to its fate as a cat toilet and litter magnet. But it's beginning to shrug off the building debris, and put on its spring finery to win my heart over again. The jury is out while I think what to plant for the summer months in this area of dry shade; succession planting needs to be addressed.

Taking my cue from the Viburnums and rose, the planting was predominantly pink toned or white.  Purple and pink Heucheras were soon joined by a pink Aquilegia (Granny's Bonnet), tulips, Dicentra formosa (the short white one), Anemone blanda, white Astrantia (Hattie's pincushion) and Pulmonaria. A previous planting of muscari soon showed up and I threw colour schemes to the winds with some mini daffodils and large ferns to fill the back of the border. The rather too successful ground cover is provided by Anthriscus sylvestris  (Black cow parsley) and Galium Odoratum (Sweet Woodruff), one plant of each popped into the border several years ago.

The Washing Line Border

(aka The Drought Border)
UrbanVegPatch - Plants in the hot dry border
~ Front view of the 'Washing Line Border; will look better when the alliums flower~

~ More subtle viewed from the pavement below the wall. ~

This border sits at the opposite (southern) end of the gardens and is opposite in aspect to the Shade Border; it gets lots of bright light and sun - but no water - so I've used plants that can withstand drought here. It's looking very lime-yellow at the moment, toning in with the foam tubing around the scaffolding. Humpf. Bad weather has killed off the softer elements leaving the Euphorbia and flax to dominate the colour.  This much acid yellow needs to be tempered with something; maybe a few tulips might brighten things up next year. At the moment, I really don't like it but there are some elements still in favour - bronze sedum heads, bronze Carex and blonde Stipa and Panicum grasses not yet chopped back, the Euphorbia against the blue-green of the Juniper.  The front needs some attention though. Purple alliums, Irises (Edith Wolford) and mauve Erysimum will soon take the edge off the lime green but, on the whole, everything needs a bit of a tweak.

The Middle Garden

 ~ Just a few of the plants in pots, in waiting ... ~
I'm ashamed to admit that this is still a work in progress. I've changed my mind about the layout several times in the last year with the result that very little got planted; in fact, the reverse was true for a huge kniphofia that I removed. Last spring I wanted a large sitting area in the middle. Then preferred the idea of a large circle of herbs with random walkways through flowers; pretty but impractical. Now I'm in favour of four large beds, mostly herbs, with a plus-sign path inbetween, surrounded by perennial, and some annual, flowers. Basically I just need to get on with it.

It's helpful to write all this down as there's a lot to finish in all the gardens; I hope there will be some progress to show by the end of the month!

By the way - Looking back at photos of the garden this time last year, pear blossom was in full froth, all tulips had been in flower for a couple of weeks, the gooseberry bush had leaves and flowers, same with the honeyberry bushes. Winter has definitely delayed spring here in the south by several weeks.

Linking to
1- Through the Garden Gate at Sarah's 'Down by the Sea' blog
2- End of Month View at Helen's 'The Patient Gardener' blog

1 Apr 2018

Six on Saturday: End of March in the garden

Goodness isn't weather fickle! Was that typical for March? It seemed winter would never end. We never know what the weather's going to do from one year to the next and this past month garden plants must have wondered whether winter was coming or going. Here in the UK, we've had snow, we've had sun, we've had rain, chill winds and then we've had more sun, and now to round off the month, it seems we're in for a week of rain. And I've got a hedge to plant. A new waterproof gardening coat has been ordered.

Despite the weather, there are several #sixonsaturday things happening in the garden today:

6 plants flowering now, showing that spring is well under way:

UrbanVegPatch: first tulip flower end of March

1. Tulips - yes really! starting to open in March. A big shout out to Morrison's supermarket for these as this is the third spring they've flowered. Planted into a raised bed with nothing-fancy multi-purpose compost. Five minutes to plant the bulbs, no maintenance, big return on the floral front but I don't pick them. I think they cost me £3 for 50 bulbs; a bargain. Look out for the bulbs from August onwards.

2. Forget-me-nots - the gift that keeps on giving.  I had a few plants from a friend's garden the year before last as they look so pretty in spring. Oh boy. Who knew they could self seed so far and wide! I still think they brighten up the early months but am confused. Some have opened pink; surely they should all be blue, or will they turn colour? Anyone?

3. Pulmonaria.  More commonly known as Lungwort due to its spotty leaves. Such an unattractive name for a beautiful little plant.  Also known as Soldiers and Sailors or Spotted Dog. I thought that was a pudding ... no, that's Spotted Dick. I digress. The buds have threatened to flower for weeks and have finally started to open. Hurrah!

4. Daffodils - yellow daffs have been going strong for weeks through snow and ice but the white ones, my favourites, have only just opened. I have no idea of the exact name as, again, these were Morrison's specials, £3 for 50 mixed white bulbs. The white tulips are lovely but I've been digging up the tiny alliums ever since.

5. Violets. I pictured a bank of wild thyme, oxlips, nodding violets, woodbine and eglantine - a throwback to studying Shakespeare at school. The reality is a few solitary flowers that become slug fodder every spring. They're seeding themselves around though so I'll pot a few up for the middle garden where I'm about to plant some eglantine (Sweet Briar Rose) and the woodbine (honeysuckle) is constantly striving for garden domination but forgiven for its lovely scent.

6. Primulas.  These were the first 'wildflowers' I planted in the veg patch for early colour and early food for bees. They're still my favourites. I have cowslips (Primula veris), primroses (Primula vulgaris), drumstick primroses (Primula denticulata) and all reliably flower throughout March and beyond, being some of the earliest spring flowers. As oxlips are only found growing in ancient woodland, and often mistaken for cowslips, I think I'm there on that one.

(A bonus to the list - the wood anemones and muscari have also flowered this weekend. So 8 plants, but why spoil a good meme!)

6 jobs completed in March:

1 - Dug out literally hundreds of foxglove seedlings
2 - Moved self seeded Cavolo Nero seedlings to this year's spot.
3 - Tidied up garden debris - swept up leaves, weeded, washed and tidied pots, disposed of litter ... yes, quite; it's a community garden so visitors/strangers/tenants and their families wander through. I'm still appalled that people will chuck plastic bottles, cigarette packets, beer bottles, plastic containers and food wrappers into a garden!! I also currently get scaffolders' debris. ๐Ÿ˜ 
4 - Ordered new netting to fence off the garden against cats and foxes.
5 - Continuously picked up the 'calling cards' from said pesky critters. ๐Ÿ˜ 
6 - Pruned gooseberry bushes, redcurrant, and quince, pear and apple trees - just in time!

6 jobs still to be done:

Make lots of paper pots. Then sow hundreds of seeds ...
Pot up spuds that are still chitting on the windowsill because I need more planters.
Repair fence and remesh (see 'Jobs completed')
Plant hedge - I'm going to grow an edible hedge! Excited? Oh yeah.
Finish new layout and herb bed in middle garden.
Move herbs from veg patch to other garden.
Buy cover for balcony staging to turn it into a mini greenhouse.
... Oh, and heaps more but let's not get overwhelmed too early in the season.

Linking to:
#sixonsaturday hosted by The Propagator blog 

30 Mar 2018

Mr Fothergill's 'Get Growing with David Domoney' and Dalefoot compost

Urban Veg Patch: Sowing seed tapes from Mr Fothergill's range

I woke up to sunshine this Friday morning and, in an optimistic mood, headed down to the veg patch to do some sowing. Mr Fothergill's, a UK seed company, had sent me a selection from their new Get Growing and Optigrow ranges to trial this year including Nantes carrot seeds and seed tapes of Spinach 'Samish' - both can be direct sown in March so I thought "let's get on with it!"

Mr Fothergill's David Domoney Get Growing range is new for this year and has been created to encourage anyone who is new to growing veg from seed. That might sound odd to seasoned gardeners but I've met many people who don't know where to begin, which seeds to choose or what to do with them. With clear printed instructions on the packet for sowing, growing and harvesting, plus advice and a QR code which links to more tips from David Domoney, anyone can hope for success.

Sunshine turned to rain very quickly and four hours later I was back indoors, soaked through from the rain but feeling good from having had such a productive time in the garden. It was only after the rain started to come down quite heavily that I thought it best to call it a day.

First job of the day was, as usual, to remove any tiny weeds from the beds - it really is the only way to keep on top of the problem, little and often - and then my thoughts turned to topping up the raised beds.  I have to do this every year, it's amazing how quickly the soil levels sink with all those worms munching and pooping away.

The plan today was to plant the spinach seed tapes, and intersperse with garlic (planted much too late but let's see what happens) and, in another bed, plant onion sets and intersperse those with rows of carrot seeds.  In my experience, the onions mask the carrot scent and deter carrot root fly, a nasty pest that burrows into the young root to lay its eggs. Eeuww.  Doesn't always work but has done for me. You can also put a 2ft/50cm high fine mesh barrier around the carrots as protection against these low flying beasties.  I topped up the carrot/onion bed with ordinary multi-purpose compost. Not too rich, just enough nutrients for a month or so and deep enough for Nantes carrots which are a short early type.

Urban Veg Patch: Improving soil with Dalefoot Double Strength compost

I've not used seed tapes before so I was keen to get the spinach tapes planted! In this bed, I used a light mulch of Dalefoot's Double Strength Wool Compost to supplement last year's soil.  Spinach likes soil to be nutrient dense and moist for a healthy crop and this particular compost from Dalefoot's comprehensive range will improve water retention as well as giving the soil a boost. The Strulch mulch from last year hadn't quite decomposed so I tickled the two mulches together before planting. No need to water as it had started to rain quite noticeably!

Urban Veg Patch: Planting out Mr Fothergill Get Growing seed tapes

The seed tapes were a revelation! The last thing I wanted to do with wet hands was to try and trickle a row of spinach seeds into a drill. With the tapes, all I had to do was anchor one end of the tape, roll it out into the little trench I'd made and cover it over. Job done! So quick and the instructions were very clear on spacing, depth, timings and how to do it.  The advice is to harvest every other plant to allow the remaining plants room to grow; or cut and come again up to four cuts for baby leaves.

I wondered whether it's the most economical way of growing spinach. The pack contained 6 metres of seeds across two 3 metre tapes; seeds are spaced roughly 1 inch apart on the tape, ie approximately 230 seeds for £2.99. This is slightly above the average cost but I imagine less seeds are wasted as they're pre-spaced for you.  I planted three one metre rows today which should give me around 115 plants. That sounds a lot! Maybe two rows would have been enough. Germination should be in one to two weeks with first pickings in May so I'll plant another row of tape towards the end of April.

I have to say I love the ease and speed of the seed tapes - with everything else that needs to be done at this time of year, it gets one box ticked off the list very efficiently.  Other seeds from the Get Growing range that I've been sent are parsnip seed tapes which I'm thrilled about as I've never been able to grow parsnips before, some cherry tomato seeds that are for growing in pots and seed mats for 5 varieties of herbs to grow year round indoors.  As a very keen herb grower, I'm excited about the seed mats and will be trialling those in pots on the balcony.

All round, I feel this is a good range for newbie growers but let's see how the plants perform. I'll report back as and when but do give them a whirl if you're not sure where to start with veg growing ... even if you just have a windowsill or front door step; where the seeds can be grown - pots or direct sow outdoors - is clearly marked on the packet!

27 Mar 2018

Purple, Prince of fruit and veg

UrbanVegPatch Red Bull brussels sprouts
~ Purple reigns! Red Bull Purple Brussels Sprouts growing in the veg patch ~

Did anyone notice the purple cauliflower purรฉe on the latest series of UK Masterchef?  It was more creamy mauve than purple and judge John Torode said straightaway that he wasn't a fan of the colour; I have to agree, it did not look appealing, but I've read time and again recently that purple veg has  been creeping up to the top of the superfood trend for the past year. I even had purple sweet potato patties at a vegetarian supper club recently which I thought was a novel concept but, blow me down, if I didn't find purple sweet potatoes at the supermarket at the weekend.

So what is it with these so-called superfoods? Personally, I believe that eating any organically grown and freshly harvested food helps to maintain good health but, apparently, the deeper the colour of the food, the greater the nutrients within. Scientists say that purple food contains very high levels of anthocyanins. These powerful anti-oxidants are known to combat free radicals in our bodies thereby boosting our immune systems and, in turn, reducing inflammation, keeping our hearts healthy and helping to fight the ageing process.  It's also been found that regularly eating these foods can reduce the risk of getting high blood pressure and maintain good cholesterol levels.  So far, so fabulous.

However, it has to be said that eating a bowl of purple potatoes is not going balance out any unhealthy eating (hello, cheesy biscuits) but as I already grow - and eat - a rainbow of veg, I thought I'd take a look at which purple veg I've grown in the veg patch, enjoyed, and will grow again.

1. Purple kale. Redbor is a deep red curly kale in the purple spectrum, grown when I trialled several varieties to see which I liked best. I've also grown a Russian kale 'Red Ursa' which is pale green with beautiful purple ribs. Both were very tasty, slightly sweeter and milder than green kale. (Although my must-have kale will always be Cavolo Nero which, btw, is also a superfood.)

2. Purple carrots. I grew these a few years ago as a fun experiment and they were very tasty. Those had an orange core; this year I'm growing Purple Sun which keeps its colour through to the core. All carrots were originally purple like this; orange carrots are a 16th century innovation.

3. As Purple Sprouting Broccoli turns green when cooked, I'm not sure that it counts, same for the purple beans I've grown (Blue Lake, Cosse Violette). I've got seeds for several varieties this year that will, in theory at least, give me a staggered crop from October to April next year.

4. Then there was my all time favourite for both looks and taste, purple brussels sprouts.  (See top photo. Gorgeous.) These were a red ball sprout, the flavour is reckoned to be superior to green sprouts. And if you don't like sprouts, try stir frying them with bacon - you might change your mind.

5. Purple Pacific asparagus, turns green on steaming. Pops up every year and is very delicious but doesn't seem to have multiplied at all - and I think one of the crowns may now be deceased. Last year I had a total of 15 stems over the entire season! Still, mustn't complain, they were very tasty with a poached egg.

6.  Aubergine. So delicious in so many recipes; it's only the skin that's purple but it still counts. Baba Ganoush, anyone?  Last year I grew baby aubergines, this year I have seeds for a compact aubergine 'Pinstripe' which can be container grown on my balcony. The velvety leaves and purple flowers don't look amiss in the flower border either.

7.  Purple Potatoes.  In 2013 I grew a purple skinned, purple fleshed potato called Vitelotte. What I failed to realise was that when you're choosing from over 80 varieties of heritage potato, it pays to make a note of the recommended use. Vitellote was deemed excellent for chips; not realising this, I boiled mine for mash with disastrously sloppy pale mauve results. Five years on and UK seed company Dobies are offering a purple potato that claims to be "ideal for mashing, baking, roasting, microwaving, crisps and chips".  I'm still not entirely sold on the idea of purple mash on my cottage pie, or purple chips, although it would certainly be a talking point.

8.  Beetroot. Sometimes it's red, sometimes almost purple. It was a root vegetable that I couldn't stand until I grew some at the start of the veg patch years, then I learned to appreciate it and now I love it. I just wish I could find the recipe for those little chilli flavoured beets that can be bought in the supermarket! Meantime, there's always beetroot chocolate cake. (Link to my recipe.)

There are two more purple veg that I haven't grown before but I'm intrigued to try this year:

9. Purple Kohl Rabi - hadn't crossed my horticultural horizon until last summer. I now know it's a brassica, similar to a turnip or broccoli stem in flavour, but crunchy, mild and sweet. Apparently the purple is slower to grow than the green but I've ordered seeds and let's see!

10. Purple 'Shiraz' snow peas.  I always have mangetout growing in the veg patch as I use them a lot in cooking but have never grown purple ones before. I expect they taste the same, but with added nutrients, and there's a bonus of lovely bi-coloured flowers!  Plus I can't resist eating the young pods raw.

But the one thing that I haven't grown - and won't be anytime soon - is a purple cauliflower.

So, anyone plumping for purple veg this year?  

18 Mar 2018

Six hero herbs for an evergreen kitchen herb garden

For two days this week the weather here was gloriously uplifting - warm air and spring sunshine - and about time too, you might think! But with settling snow falling over London again today, I'm appreciating six herbs that seem to simply shrug off the worst of the winter weather. These six evergreen herbs can be grown on a windowsill, balcony, or garden and provide freshly picked flavours for my kitchen all year round.

I confess I've never had much luck growing herbs indoors; there's simply not enough good light in my flat - it switches from shade to full sun or vice versa depending which window I'm looking out of. I'm lucky to have a small balcony though and if I didn't have that, I'd anchor planters onto the window sills. Of course I also have herbs in the veg patch garden but when it's cold and dark, it's much nicer just to reach through a door or window.

Tried and tested over the years, I've successfully grown these particular kitchen herbs year round on my third floor balcony, with no extra heat or protection. This past week I've had to clear my balcony completely before it was thoroughly jet washed as part of ongoing building works so all plants have been temporarily removed to the garden downstairs for safety. They’ll withstand ice and snow but not the blast of a powerful water jet!

So these are my six hero herbs; the trick with all of these is to make sure that the compost they’re in is kept just moist but well drained. Waterlogged or parched plants will not survive!

Parsley (Petroselinum)

With more vitamin C in its leaves than an orange, this is the herb I’m never without. The curly leaved variety is what I grow on my balcony. The seeds can be slow to germinate so I buy a supermarket herb and transfer it straight out of its pot and into good quality compost in a planter. It needs to acclimatise/recover from its hothouse start in life but, if the weather's warm enough, it can go straight outside. Watch out for those night time temps though! The roots are free to grow and the plant thrives. Parsley is biennial, so tries to flower in the second year, at which point I replace it.

Celery Leaf (Apium graveolens)

Assuming you like the taste of celery (I do), this is a perfect alternative to celery for the windowsill  or container gardener. This biennial herb is hardy down to -12°C so will happily sit through all but the harshest winters. I add a few leaves to salad but mostly use it in stocks and soups. Edible seeds follow pretty spring time flowers and are delicious ground with sea salt when dried. Sow seeds in spring for a continuous crop.

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

Over time, these can grow huge when planted in the ground so I prefer to keep mine contained in a pot to restrict its size. I bought a small lollipop bay some years ago, repotted it into a similar sized beautiful terracotta container and now replace the top inch of soil every year in spring. Bay likes its roots to be pot bound so it's a perfect container herb. Adds a subtle flavour to casseroles, a classic addition to bouquet garni, and intriguingly good in rice pudding.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

I love having aromatic sages in the garden but, on my balcony, I grow Common Sage for cooking with. As a Mediterranean herb, it’s well suited to the rigours of life on the edge - the crosswinds of an urban balcony can be very damaging to plants - but sage, as with other grey/green or silver leaved plants, takes these conditions in its stride. Growing in a container keeps it at a manageable size, and it makes a tasty addition to vegetable dishes - I particularly love it with squash. It’s also reputed to have anti-aging properties, need I say more?

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

It looks and smells amazing in a winter wreath but that’s not why I grow it. I have an Italian friend who makes a delicious pizza topped with thin slices of potato, chopped rosemary and cheese. It’s one of the classic ‘Scarborough Fair’ four and is excellent for aiding digestion which is why it’s so great with lamb or other fatty meats. It’s versatility extends beyond the kitchen and I love fresh sprigs steeped in warm almond oil to make a muscle soothing rub.

Thyme (Thymus)

The natural habitat of this hardy evergreen herb is paths, rockeries and cliffs so it’s not only a classic culinary herb but perfectly suited to balcony or container life.  My favourite is the low growing creeping thyme in the veg patch garden which I pick from regularly; on my balcony, for ease of access, a small upright thyme is grown in the window box at the edge for maximum light.  This summer I'll switch that out for an orange scented thyme (Thymus 'Fragrantissimus') which I've read is wonderful with sweet dishes, and possibly also cocktails! All thymes can be used for cooking but also medicinally - an infusion of the leaves makes a soothing tea for sore throats because of its antiseptic properties.

And, last but not least, soil for containers:

Good soil is at the heart of every successful garden. Because the substrate that I grow these container herbs is rarely changed, I use a soil based compost such as John Innes No.3 mixed with perlite for added drainage and, during spring and summer, water in an organic liquid fertiliser every few weeks.

What are your hero herbs at this time of year?

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