Monday, 30 July 2012

The "allotment" at four months

Yesterday was bright but breezy, the sky full of all sorts of clouds, but enough blue to coax me out. Still, it's felt rather autumnal this weekend, with disconcertingly little heat behind the sun. I went over to my friends' garden, to revamp the raised bed, harvest the carrots and onions, and sow root and leaf crops for the next few months.

It was a great few hours - chatting to my friend as we picked blackcurrants, sorted and tied up onions, weeded and raked, fed and sowed the bed with turnips, perpetual spinach, beetroot and more carrots.

My friends had success with runner beans last year. This year, they are growing a pretty, buttery-flowered variety, fading to white, but it's been wet, dull, cool, and the plants have been covered in slugs - the biggest I've ever seen. Nonetheless, they survived, and have started producing pods. Small pots of sweet peas, on either side, gave a modest posy of cut flowers - large, white, the edges tinged with lilac.

Blackcurrants! There are two patches in this garden, both many years old. I did some remedial pruning in the spring, but otherwise they've been left alone - still they have produced a large, healthy crop. It took a couple of hours for us to pick them all - sticky work, but worth it. Before I left, we made a bottle of cassis - simply breaking down a small bowlful of fruit in a pan with a dash of water, passing through a sieve, adding sugar and alcohol (white rum as it was to hand) to taste. The rest were frozen on trays, so they can be bagged up and kept for later use.

When I tested the carrot crop two or three weeks ago, I was not impressed - they seemed small, forked, and some were nibbled (slugs had taken off the exposed tops). I left them in the ground, since we had nothing to lose, and I hoped they might swell a little more, but by yesterday I was anxious to get the ground resown with something I hoped would be more successful. What a surprise - the bed was full of carrots, many straight(ish), reasonably thick, unblemished, and fragrant. I took a bagful, and my friends got even more. So this is my first true carrot crop, after years of failing. Not as regular in appearance as supermarket examples, but they have an intense aroma that is unbeatable.

You may recall I sowed some red basil back in the spring. My friends have diligently potted them on and kept them watered, and now they are in full bloom - so they are at the end of their productive life (although there's still time to sow a fresh crop), but they filled the greenhouse with scent, and were beautiful enough to have been used as bedding plants. The foliage has gone an interesting two-tone purple and lime green combination, and they are topped by tall spikes of pale purple flowers, which would attract pollinators if they were outdoors. I took some leaves, which should be tender and fragrant enough to eat.

The onions were a reasonable success too. For £1, we got around 40 sets, and most have swollen into medium-sized bulbs. One or two had flowered, reducing their size, but the best were hung up to dry in my friends' shed. It's a good idea to 'cure' them like this, somewhere airy and out of the rain, if you want to keep them for a long time. The leaves with shrivel, the outer skin will go papery, and they should enter dormancy. They are perfectly edible now, of course. Note, the onions I planted in the shadier raised bed (below) are still growing, so I've left them in for now.

My friends' garden has some old fruit trees, which tend to produce a harvest only every other year at best. The smaller apple tree is currently laden with blushed fruits (above), while the larger tree, which yielded a very tasty if bone-dry cider two years ago is having an identity crisis, producing spurs of blossom in July, while a generous crop of fruits swells around them (below).

Finally, there are crops still to come, like blackberries. The brambles above are very well behaved, arching over a boundary wall, and gave a handful of ripe fruits yesterday - the first to ripen is always the one at the tip of the spur. There should be a good-sized crop, so long as it doesn't rain too much over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A time of flowers: July part II

Continued from part one...

An unusual source of reliable plants has turned out to be the local greengrocer. He has a range on a couple of small tables out on the pavement in front of the shop, depending on the time of year. I got some lavender from there last year, which has thrived. Recently I saw a pot of mixed Achillea (yarrow), and I had to get it - they were in shades of faded pink and white, and huge (two-three feet tall) for not much money. I popped them into the front garden, in a gap left by the foxglove that had reached its end, and here they are - a lovely hint of cottage garden, and great for pollinating insects.

I have two large Buddleia davidii forming part of the 'hedge' between my small front garden and the road. This year, the deep purple one has grown to its largest size yet - from street level, around ten feet tall. I pruned it quite hard a couple of months ago, but left the tallest stems, as I wanted it to form a sort-of tree - I've seen them trained in this way elsewhere. It's just coming into bloom now, with its unmistakable bready scent, beckoning bees and butterflies.

More nasturtiums - this time mustard yellow. I've never seen this colour before, and although in principle I should hate it, I don't - it's another splash of brightness.

The dominant colour is red, however. Towards the bottom of the picture above, you can see the fluorescent orange that is for me the quintessential variety, but most are a deeper scarlet or blood red. These are all self-sown offspring of last year's carmine variety.

Two plants I sowed into modules were Nigella and Ammi majus (I also sowed them direct into the back garden flower bed). I planted some out under the tomatoes that went straight into the ground in the front, and though small, they are now flowering. What delicate patterns and colours - seen here amongst the leaves of a Cordyline that grew of its own accord a couple of years ago. There are mixed blue Nigella too.

My favourite rose of all time - Rosa gallica versicolor (syn. R. mundi). As with 'Albertine' in part one, this single-flush flowerer has lasted much longer this year, even producing more buds as the first flowers faded. The bright, striped pink flowers are heavily scented - a good, old fashioned rose smell. Perfect for liqueurs, syrups, and crystallising.

A landmark of the year - the first tomato truss! Yes, they're late this year - I planted them later and the weather has been even worse than in 2011. Still, they are growing fast now, and fruit is on the horizon.

Finally, my greatest sense of achievement this month derives from the sweet peas. Grown from seed, in pots in the greenhouse, sown in April. Three 19th century varieties, 'America' (the red and white striped ones), 'Beaujolais' (not pictured), and 'Senator' (probably the lilac ones) have all thrived and are romping up cane pyramids. They have all the scent you could hope for, and seem to embody the English summer - delicate, short-lived, fragrant, bright. I will pick them to prolong flowering - here they are in a shot glass that makes a good small vase.

A time of flowers: July part I

Time for my lazy monthly update, mostly in the form of pictures again - split into two this time, as there's lots of pretty things in the garden this month. We've had another very wet few weeks, and the jet stream finally shifting from an unusually southerly to more normal northerly track hasn't helped at all - being in the middle of the country, we've had the worst of both situations. Still, it's been mild, and the plants have thrived - even if the molluscs have too.

I have to say, I think the single-flowering roses (i.e. those that have just one flush of blooms, rather than repeat flowering when pruned back) like R. 'Albertine', above, have benefitted from the subdued conditions. They seem to have flowered much more slowly, over weeks rather than days. Of course, lots of flowers have been lost due to rotting before they opened, but most have survived. This old climber was bought for 10p a few years ago - a dead-looking twig in a pot. I have pruned it back hard many times, as it has a tendency to grow in the wrong directions (and is very thorny), but it still flowers well. It has little scent, but carries these lovely pink blossoms, starting deeper and fading through peach to almost white. A gem.

I did sow Calendula this year - both the mixed variety I grew last year, and a bronze-coloured variety. However, they did not germinate well, so I've relied on self-sown plants - and here they are. I don't normally favour yellow flowers, but I think I prefer the foreground bloom to the more typical orange one behind. They sing out on a dull day.

My other climbing rose (R. 'New dawn') is planted rather awkwardly in an island bed I devote to flowers - but in early spring, I constructed a sturdy tripod of canes, and tied in all the bare stems, pruning out anything weak. The result has been a big success - a six-foot column of flowers, which has been favoured by birds, waiting their turn at the nearby feeders.  Slightly paler than 'Albertine', and slightly more open blooms - with lovely golden stamens - which fade from pink to white.

In the same flower bed, I had nasturtiums last year - and they returned with no help from me (though I did plant some anyway). They don't come true from seed, and this year have split into almost every colour possible. This peach-blushed one is particularly striking, especially with the dark centres.

I did sow lots of annuals into the bed, to ensure it was stuffed with colour this year. Several kinds of poppies have finally got round to flowering - and this is the first. What a beauty. Incidentally, if you're thinking this must be a very garish display, you're right - I have no colour scheme, nor do I want one. It's a tiny garden, and mostly green due to my preference for fruit and vegetables, so this patch is where I let loose - although the bright oranges, pinks, red, purples, and white all seem to work together fine. It's a celebration of summer excess, brief and exuberant.

Finally, here's another rose, which I've photographed before. The varietal name is lost - this is easily 15 years old, rescued from a bucket by the side of the house. I seem to recall my parents buying it on holiday somewhere, and it has proved itself resilient. Bouncing back after going in the ground, it's flowered for a couple of months this year already. Not so showy as some of the other flowers, but a reliable beauty nonetheless.

More in part two...

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Mid June snapshots

A cop-out, I know - I've written nothing substantial in months, and I apologise. Sadly, life's got in the way recently, and not in a good sense. Anyway, here are a few pictures and a bit of text. The photo above is of my first substantial harvest this year- potatoes! These are 'Red Duke of York'. I bought a bag of seed potatoes for £1, planted two to a sack, and covered with last year's spent grow bags and some homemade compost. I planted them in mid-March, gave them minimal water, fed them twice with homemade nettle feed, and earthed them up twice too. So they've hardly required much input. They've occupied a very sunny, but slightly rain-sheltered spot at the front of my house, and thrived. I don't know if this is a good harvest - approximately 300-350g per seed potato - but I don't eat them much, so I don't care. The colour is enough for me.

There's a large pot - very large in fact, probably a metre across - that's taken up space in the back garden for years. Originally bought to house a tree, sunk into the ground to prevent it getting too big. The tree died, and the pot was exhumed and filled with spare clay I dug out elsewhere. That's it - it gets waterlogged because there are no drainage holes, but still it's attracted wildlife and flowers. I'm happy for buttercups to live in it for now - they are so cheerful, and they can't spread or cause trouble (they are terribly invasive). I hope to turn it into a small pond one day.

The peony is in full bloom - and it's the best year yet. There must be twenty flowers on it, some already fully open, some still in bud. It flopped over, and even tied up is unruly, but it makes such a great cut flower, and is the most voluptuous thing in the garden. Always reminds me of some sort of dessert.

Colour is creeping in elsewhere. After spring bulbs, shrubs, and annuals like forget-me-nots are over, but before the summer annuals get going, it can be rather a green season, from mid May to late June, but the roses are starting to take over. I don't know this variety's name - I stuck all the spare pot-bound plants my parents had collected over the years in one bed, which is the dedicated flower space in my garden now (there are roses in other places too though). This is delicate, single, and an unusual purple colour. Roses are my favourite flower, and I would grow many more if I could.

Inside the greenhouse, things are getting crowded. But look how healthy the repotted tomatoes are - there are dozens and dozens of plants, eager to be squeezed in anywhere I can. Twelve have been put straight into the garden, and I'll put three or four into each large potato bag. My friends will take some, and the rest will be put wherever I can find room. Lower left you can see a sunflower - another success this year. Those already planted out are large and stocky.

Finally, the harvests to come. Last year I luxuriated in a bumper crop of raspberries - I picked over 7 kg and left many more - but this year there seems to be an even greater number! My thanks to the several species of bee I've watched pollinating them. For me, this is the easiest fruit crop by far - and I didn't even plant them. They grew of their own accord, and all I've done is kill off competing plants and prune them as required. The best kind of gardening!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Mid May snapshots

I really must write something soon. But for now, some more pictures.

One thing I love about a garden is seeing what comes back each year. I planted these alliums (A. 'Purple Giant', if I remember correctly) a few years ago now - and each year, the clump returns, with an extra flower head. There are two other kinds in the garden (excluding the edibles - the chives in particular are almost identical, albeit a lot smaller), 'Purple Sensation', which is taller, more slender, and slightly redder, and A. cristophii, which is a huge metallic starburst. I can't have too many of them - they are perfect flowers, hiding most of the year, popping up of their own accord, needing no help, and floating their striking blooms above the garden, without blocking the view.

Calendula! Another winner - it self sows freely (I have hundreds of baby plants coming up), is colourful, and indeed edible, unlike the ornamental alliums. This is one of last year's plants, that survived the winter in a large container, giving it a head start. The yellow-orange is one of two dominant colours in the garden at the moment - the other being purple. Wild Geum urbanum (a pernicious weed in my opinion) and buttercups on the one hand, alliums, lilac, self-sown columbine on the other.

This is absolutely the last cherry blossom! For some reason, this spur opened a couple of weeks later than the rest. Sadly, the bumper crop I'd hoped for is looking doubtful. Most of the flowers seem to have shrivelled, and are falling off. I can only assume it's a failure of pollination - even though both trees are in bloom at the same time. Perhaps it was the weather, keeping pollinators away.

There are many herbs to be gathered now - mostly perennials. Lovage, lemon balm, mint, and here sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). Now this is in flower, it needs to be cut back - its sweet, heady aroma develops on drying. It will regrow, and can be harvested again later in the year (although I never use it up). If left, it will go over, as we say, losing its freshness and fragrance as it puts its energy into setting seed - the same is true of most herbs, annual and perennial. Cut them, whether you need them or not (unless you want the seed).

There's another strand of colour in the garden, which will take over from the blues and purples of mid spring: magenta and pink. This is red valerian (Centranthus ruber). It arrived a few years ago, probably by seed from nearby, and now dominates the front garden. It loves cracks in paving, softening the edge of the driveway, and the front of the house. I keep it mostly, as it is bright, flowers for months (and will flower again if cut back in midsummer), and attracts masses of pollinators. On the downside, it's a haven for snails, which hide under the leaves, and between the stem bases, and aphids, that encrust the growing shoots (but seem to do it no harm).

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Early May snapshots

A few photographs to sum up the back garden in early May. Today was another mild, sunny day, although it was a little breezy.

The freestanding cherry tree flowers a few days later than the fan trained one. It's never grown as strongly, but so far this year it looks healthy - plenty of blossom, just about holding on a week into May (both trees bloomed later than in 2011).

Broad bean flowers are pretty - how many other garden plants have true black on their blossom? This is an unknown variety - from a bag of dried broad beans I bought from a local Turkish/Eastern European grocer's. Most were used to make a delicious, simple Iranian dish of broad beans with dill, but the final few I soaked to see if they would germinate. I'd call that a success.

 I tore out the three-year-old fruit bed over winter (the broad beans above are growing in its place), but the strawberries had sent enough runners across the garden to avoid the need for buying new plants. I dug a few out and temporarily put them in a nursery bed - and they are already flowering. You can see the embryonic fruit at the centre here - the yellow blob will swell and turn red in a few weeks, with luck.

A couple of 30p bags of tulip bulbs were one of the highlights of last spring, grown in pots. I did the responsible thing and lifted the bulbs - which had multiplied - at the end of the summer, and kept them indoors. But then I forgot about them. I found the bag just a few weeks ago, and decided to plant them in my sole flower bed, figuring they wouldn't survive dormant until autumn. Here is living proof that you can plant tulips in March and get flowers in May - an extraordinary bounty.

 I like barbecues, and a warm sunny day is perfect for testing new ideas. The sausages were shop-bought - though good-quality - but the rest I assembled myself. In the upper picture, you can see pork steaks that were sliced laterally and 'stuffed' with coarse mustard and honey, then seasoned; below are chicken thighs with rosemary, salt, and smoked garlic pounded and rubbed under the skin; at the bottom, chicken breast chunks and baby button mushrooms, marinated in yoghurt, lemon juice, and cinnamon, on metal skewers. All quite delicious.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Successes and failures

The garden is in full growth now May is here, especially with warmer weather following last month's excessive rains.

This is a difficult time. There's still much to be sown - late peas and broad beans, early French and runner beans, summer and winter squash, and fast-growing annual flowers. The early spring sowings need to be potted on, which multiplies the watering. Pests are proliferating - slugs are active, especially after rain - and aphids reproduce near-infinitely. The weeds that you didn't pull up in April are twice the size, and the bare patches of soil endlessly sprout fresh ones. With little to harvest, this is a time that tries the gardener's patience, where the faith that you're doing the right thing, and will be rewarded in time, is all you have.

Well, not quite all. There are pleasures to be found. It's spring, after all - growth is lush, the winter's grimness forgotten. In my part of the world, I can count on more than 15 hours of daylight each day at the beginning of May - more than enough to get everything done. Temperatures are reliably pleasant - even if the weather is not.

So I'll share with you a few pictures of the highs and lows of my own garden, which is by turns life-affirming and soul-destroying. I am rewarded for the effort I have put in, and chided by the parts I've neglected. Salutory.


My potatoes are perhaps the happiest crop this year - to think I didn't grow them in 2011, and only chose to this time on a whim. One bag was earthed up for the first time two days ago, the other three got their second topping up. The two most advanced have been fed with homemade nettle food - nettles steeped in water, which provides a good range of nutrients, but stinks like bad drains.

Perhaps this is the year of the cherry. It's too early to tell - fruit fall wiped out most of last year's crop, and the last few were taken by birds. Netting can prevent the latter, but it's up to the trees whether any fruit ripens. The early broad beans are just coming into bloom. Not a sign of blackfly so far - I escaped entirely last year - so this is a success. Again, whether the fruit sets is beyond my control.

The first tomatoes I potted up at the end of March, and have lived on the warmest windowsill since. They are sturdy, and not far off being ready to plant in their final positions.


I took a chance and repotted later tomatoes and chillies in the greenhouse, and even dicier I left them in there overnight. They haven't been harmed by cold, but they haven't thrived. Of course it's not as warm in there as on the windowsill in the house, but worst of all, slugs have taken a shine to them. They graze young plants down to the ground, and every day I see more attacked. Well, it must end - I will eradicate them, one way or another.

The first (purple-podded) peas have finally taken off, after seeming unhappy for a few weeks. The ones I put in the back (normal green-podded peas, above) have started suffering injuries - molluscs again. It's reminded me one major reason why I never succeed with peas - once they finally get established, they lose shoots, leaves, and even pods to snails and slugs. I probably won't grow them here again.

The bane of my front garden: couch grass. It treated the weed-suppressant fabric I laid under the new raised beds with disdain. I am trying a double layer, but can't rule out stronger solutions. At least it's good for wildlife, and theoretically edible (I saw a neighbourhood cat nibbling some recently - perhaps I could recruit cats to eradicate it?). Last year's chard has produced three pickings despite this, and is still growing. I intend to lift the plants, remove the weeks, and replant them in fresh soil.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The "allotment" week five

A quick update on my friends' garden. When I checked the calendar on Sunday, I was surprised to find it had been two weeks since my last visit. And at this time of year, two years means a lot of difference. Here are some photographs of what was occurring - compare these to the previous updates.

Sweet peas, above; red and green basil, not doing too well, below.

Mispoona is now ready to start harvesting - this is a tasty leaf, related to mizuma.

The onions are coming on really well.

I took over some peas that I'd hardened off, cleared a space by one of the new fences, and popped them in.

Mixed salad leaves are also ready to pick.

And the outdoor-sown spinach is growing fast - it will be ready for its first trim in a fortnight or so.

Spare onions that I planted in the shady bed haven't thrived, but that may be because they were the runts of the litter. Next to them, I planted around 35 pak choi - there are many more to find space for.